Femme Fatale
“Pure De Palma, pure likeable trash”
Dir. and writ. Brian De Palma; feat. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney, Edouard Montoute (R)
Many of Brian De Palma’s best films have been, from a certain point of view, complete trash — thrillers that exploited viewers and actors (actresses, to be more precise) shamelessly, stole liberally from film history (especially from a fat man named Alfred), and didn’t much care if they made sense, so long as they gave you some jolts to keep you from running to the concession stand.

Femme Fatale isn’t one of the director’s best, but it certainly is trash: There’s no consistency to the characters, the plot is utterly dishonest, and it’s tailor-made for sexist pigs. Fatale is a slinky, slutty shaggy dog story with a silly-ass punch line; but if you’re in the mood for dumpster diving, it’s a lot of fun.

The buzz has been good for the film’s long opening heist sequence, which is set at the Cannes film festival and involves some hot footage of two supermodel types making out in a high-class bathroom stall. The truth is, this set piece is fantastic — perfect pitch and pacing, appropriately lighthearted music — until the end, which never quite comes. It’s like 20 minutes of promising flirtation with a girl who disappears before you get her phone number, and it’s possible that this denied climax is the best reason to stay engaged in the rest of the movie. The other reason will be Romijn-Stamos, who is no actress, but is more than willing to strip and writhe around to make up for it.

Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos star in Femme Fatale
De Palma throws us our quota of mistaken identities, frame-ups, and false resolutions; and unlike less-talented directors who do the same, he does it with a cinematic verve that reminds you he is capable of semi-great things. That won’t matter to most serious cinephiles, who will give up early on, or to the overcoat crowd, who are only sticking around (um, staying around) hoping for more three-quarter views of Romijn-Stamos’ boobs. But it’s something, and it’s a hell of a lot better than Bonfire of the Vanities. John Defore

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
“A joyless bore”
Dir. Chris Columbus; writ. J.K. Rowling (novel), Steven Kloves; feat. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs (PG)
For a film set at an academy of witchcraft, the latest entry in the Harry Potter fanbase-milking campaign is remarkably devoid of magic. For that, one is forced to blame director Columbus, whose blandifying touch has been boring thoughtful moviegoers for well over a decade now. How else to explain how a truly wonderful cast of adult thespians and a passably charming group of young ones can fail to imbue a well-loved book with anything resembling joy? Even those who lent bright moments to the first film — Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane — are muffled here, as if the director decided their previous work had pointed out the dullness surrounding them.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in The Chamber of Secrets
And while the film does little to seduce older viewers, it is surprisingly unaccommodating to tykes. Fifteen minutes in, when the bleach-blond Lucius Malfoy delivers a dry recitation of his grievances against Harry’s buddies, the kids around me became visibly restless; it’s the first of many moments in which too much talk kills whatever action is supposed to be happening. Later, one young wizard is forced to vomit enormous slugs; messages are left written in blood on the walls, with semi-dead cats strung up as punctuation; perhaps more disturbing is a “house elf” so lacking in self-esteem that he injures himself whenever he feels he has done something stupid.

If only the film’s problem were that it was too scary; the truth is, Chamber of Secrets is a big, bloated bore, full of tedious exposition and lifeless computer graphics. One hopes that the onset of puberty and Columbus’ evacuation of the director’s chair bodes well for the next installment, but it’s hard to know what to expect from director Alfonso Cuarón, whose recent Y Tu Mamá También took the two-guys-and-a-girl formula into terrain that would scare the pants off Harry, Hermione, and Ron Weasley. John Defore

The Man From Elysian Fields
“Impossible to buy”
Dir. George Hickenlooper; writ. Phillip Jayson Lasker; feat. Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Olivia Williams, James Coburn, Julianna Margulies, Anjelica Huston, Michael Des Barres (R)
Fields is a movie that aims to teach us something about love, responsibility, and honesty. But in the end it convinces the viewer of only one thing: Mick Jagger should stop recording solo albums and make more movies.

It’s no compliment to an actor to say that he makes Jagger look like a master thespian, but Andy Garcia — who plays an unsuccessful novelist forced to work for Jagger’s escort service — can’t invigorate a screenplay so dead set on spelling everything out for the audience. Filmmakers should think twice about scripts in which characters criticize fictional works: When here, readers complain about a novel’s ridiculous premise, or praise another writer’s knack for creating believable characters, we’re inclined to ask those questions of the film. The answers aren’t good. The plot’s coincidences and convenient lapses in sanity are believable only in the context of wish fulfillment, and while they may provide a nice showcase for Coburn as a dying legend, they’re every bit as false as the personae Jagger’s gigolos present to wealthy crones.

Anjelica Huston and Mick Jagger in The Man From Elysian Fields
Byron Tiller resents having to prostitute himself to support his family, and Garcia expresses that resentment as oppressive boredom. It’s hard to believe any woman would pay to spend time with someone so lifeless — especially with the elegantly sleazy, thoughtfully coy Jagger setting up the appointments. Strangely, it’s Jagger who has the film’s most convincing emotional attachment, despite a lifetime of persuasive evidence arguing against it. Viewers may rightly identify with those rich, lonely women who pay to see Garcia but long to spend more time in the company of his boss. John Defore
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