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Review: Ma Mère

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To American moviegoers, the words “French film” have long been a euphemism for “high-minded nudity." We’ve always relied on the French to bring us intelligent, philosophical films that featured explicit sex. They mock us for being Puritans, we “tsk-tsk” their libertinism, and everybody’s happy. But recently the French have upped the ante by losing the philosophy altogether: Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Virginie Despentes’ Baise-Moi referenced American movie aesthetics (the psychological thriller and action flick, respectively) while pushing the sexual envelope even further.
    Ma Mère is a giant step backward, combining the worst French tendencies toward self-indulgent philosophizing with a thin veneer of Catholic Sex Shame to create a muddled, joyless incest epic. The plot involves Pierre, a disaffected teen whose widowed mother draws him into her world of unconventional sexual exploits, including rough public sex, orgies and eventually binding, whipping and cutting a pool boy. The film’s religious imagery is heavy-handed and misplaced, the sex is repulsive — not for its perversion but for its emptiness and brutality — and the political metaphor in certain BDSM scenes rings even hollower than the religion.
    Except for the touching, human presence of relative newcomer Emma de Caunes, the performances are uniformly abject. Neither the normally compelling Isabelle Huppert nor the smolderingly handsome Louis Garrel (Bertolucci’s The Dreamers) can do anything to redeem the bombastic mess. For a more honest exploration of incest, rent David O. Russell’s compelling — and believable — Spanking the Monkey, still the most insightful, compassionate and humorous film on this difficult subject. — Andy Horwitz

Review: Fearless Freaks, Featuring the Flaming Lips
  How many more music documentaries can Western culture take? Between that Metallica movie, those competing Ramones docs and the approximately 13,497 Rolling Stones concert films, we’re in full-on “Voice of a Generation” overload. That said, Bradley Beesley’s film about the life and times of these oddball rockers from Oklahoma gets a pass, for one main reason: Beesley is a childhood friend and moviemaking buddy of Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. As a result, his film is loaded with archival footage, home movies of fresh-faced young Wayne playing football with his brothers and interviews with the families, not to mention a very candid scene of drummer Steven Drozd in his heroin days. Heck, we even go behind the scenes of Wayne’s still-unfinished homemade sci-fi epic Christmas on Mars.
    One complaint: Fearless Freaks clearly wants to indoctrinate us into the world of the Lips but can’t seem to explain who the hell these guys are. We learn that Wayne Coyne is an affably loony singer, that the band has a wild stage show, and that their home movies feature lots of blood. But the result feels more like an extended homage than a true biography. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Saving Face
In the most arresting scene in Saving Face, a father excoriates his unmarried daughter for getting pregnant. The difference here? The daughter is forty-eight years old — and her own grown daughter is watching. Knowing your mother had sex is “scary.” But seeing her trembling, reduced to a child: that’s scary. Sure enough, it’s Wil (Michelle Krusiec) who winds up taking care of Ma (the formidable Joan Chen) — even as she’s falling into a scandal of her own: a romance with her boss’s daughter, Vivian (Lynn Chen).
    The film opens a window into New York’s Chinese-American community: its taboos, its prejudices, its sense of honor, and yes, its dumplings. But as a love story, it ultimately falls short. I rooted for Wil and Vivian, sure, but mainly in principle (“Go, first Asian lesbian couple in a U.S. theatrical release!”). In their pivotal flirtation, Vivian (a dancer and therefore expressive) teaches Wil (a surgeon and therefore methodical) how to fall without getting hurt. (“When I say ‘fall,’ you totally let go,” says Vivian. “I can’t do this,” says Wil.) Got it! Their attraction is posited rather than explored; conflicts between them don’t emerge, they’re imposed. The film’s kooky denouement is similarly contrived — Must stop wedding! Must reach airport before lover boards plane! — but to be fair, things don’t go quite where you think they will. And this, thankfully, we can see coming: Wil and Viv may be the first such cinematic couple, but they won’t be the last. — Lynn Harris
Review: Second Best
“It’s not my job to make you feel good,” says Elliot (Joe Pantoliano) in Eric Weber’s Second Best. And boy, he’s not kidding. Elliot is a failed writer whose sole publishing venture is writing anonymous weekly diatribes about the sorry lives of losers (i.e., most of us) and distributing them around his drab Jersey town. Of course, Elliot’s own sense of inadequacy — he assures his readership that he is “the biggest loser of all” — is about to be put to the test: His oldest friend Richard (Boyd Gaines), a successful Hollywood producer, is coming to town for a couple of days, ostensibly to hang with his old buds. Elliot, naturally, hopes to sell him a script.
    As is often the case in movies about dead-end shlubs who feel sorry for themselves, the staggering depth of Elliot’s self-loathing is clearly a kind of security blanket. This is one of those fanfares for the common man wherein we learn that life as an undiscovered writer in New Jersey Ain’t All That Bad. (Paul Giamatti was presumably unavailable, but Joey Pants does an okay job filling his alpha-schnook shoes.) The problem: unlike our hero, we’ve pretty much figured all this out in the first twenty minutes; watching the rest of the movie isn’t so much insightful as it is depressing. “The loser wants everybody to be as unhappy as himself,” Elliot intones. Congratulations, fella — you’ve succeeded. — Bilge Ebiri
Date DVD #34: Chappelle’s Show, Season Two Uncensored
The Chappelle Show: Season Two Uncensored is the Star Wars of DVD. After the first installment broke sales records, the impending release of season two sent other studios scurrying out of the way. The only DVD foolish enough to face Chappelle is The Aviator, which, appropriately enough, is about a man foolish enough to face down Capitol Hill and Big Business. I’d like to go with the underdog, but Chappelle’s Show is clearly the best DVD for a date. After all, the sight of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes pissing in jars could ruin the mood.
    And now that Chappelle has taken over the gossip pages — delaying his third season indefinitely and disappearing into thin air, then showing up in South Africa, where he insisted he wasn’t crazy, drug-addicted or dead — this DVD set is twice as interesting as the first. It’s become a kind of serial mystery, peppered with clues. The whodunit: How and when did Dave get stuck?
    Did he realize the Racial Draft sketch (in which Asians claim the Wu Tang Clan for their team) was so funny he might never top it? Did he really regret having Paul Mooney say, “Wayne Brady makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X”? (And is that really why he brought Brady back on the show for a hilarious gang-banging skit?) Was it the stunt casting of Oprah Winfrey as his babymama in one bit? Or did he decide he couldn’t ever play a crack addict again? (If so, it’s our loss.)
    My theory is that Chappelle developed writer’s block afer recording nearly ninety minutes of commentary for the extended blooper reel. He’s relatively subdued on the track, letting co-creator Neal Brennan do most of the talking. It’s not a smoking gun, and most of it’s still damn hilarious. But no writer should ever have to watch their best work repeatedly, much less what was left on the cutting-room floor. Your date, on the other hand, might not object to too much of a good thing. — Logan Hill

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