John Hurt

Dogville

2003                           

Canal+France 3 Cinema/Lion’s Gate Entertainment

Written and Directed by Lars Von Trier

Produced by Vibeke Windelov

Lars Von Trier is a director whose work I’ve enjoyed for a whole lot of years now.  His movies aren’t easy to sit through and they defy conventional description and indeed, I’ve tried explaining some of the plots of his movies to people used to more commercial fare and they’ve looked at me as if I had lost my mind.  And I can’t blame them.  “Breaking The Waves” is about a woman who seeks spiritual redemption for herself and her crippled husband through prostitution and has what is probably the most baffling and mysterious ending of any movie I’ve ever seen.  “The Element Of Crime” is a science fiction thriller about the hunt for a brilliantly insane serial killer in one of the most bizarre post-apocalyptic worlds ever put on screen.  And let’s not even go into his most disturbed and probably best known work: “The Kingdom” a Danish TV mini-series re-edited into two six hour movies for U.S. distribution set in a haunted hospital that was Americanized as the highly disappointing “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital.” Do yourself a favor and rent or buy Lars Von Trier’s original.  Trust me, you’ll thank me for it.  I remember first seeing it and thinking that Lars Von Trier had to be an alias for a writer I know named Mike McGee as it reminded me strongly of his work and in fact McGee and I spent one night talking about just “The Kingdom” on IM for about four hours.  It’s beautifully deranged stuff.

DOGVILLE takes place in a remote, nearly isolated town in the Rocky Mountains during The Great Depression.  The town is so small it has only one street along which maybe 15 or 20 people live, if that and even then, seven or eight of them are children.  The town and its inhabitants are observed with a calm, clinical detachment by one Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) who claims to be a writer.  He actually spends much of his time playing mind games mostly with himself as he’s convinced himself that he’s the town’s intellectual and moral compass.  One night while walking through the town he hears what he thinks are gunshots in the valley and shortly afterwards he meets Grace (Nicole Kidman) a staggeringly beautiful woman who is on the run from mobsters.  Impulsively, Tom hides her out and after her pursuers have gone he sets about to prove to the citizens of Dogville that they need what he terms ‘moral realignment’ by allowing Grace to stay and give her sanctuary from her pursuers.  Grace is allowed two weeks to prove that she is worthy of their protection and Tom convinces her that she needs to show the townspeople that they need her and she them.

Grace slowly but surely integrates into the life of Dogville.  She teaches the children of Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard) who are an extremely unhappily married couple.  Vera is so repressed on so many levels that she comes across as not quite human while Chuck is quite simply a swine who hates Grace because she reminds him of everything he left behind in the big city.  She helps crusty and sarcastic Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) in the general store, spends time talking with blind Mr. McKay (Ben Gazzara) cooks for the simple-minded truck driver Ben (Zeljko Ivanek) and accepts the friendship of the grateful Liz (Chloe Sevigny) who claims to be delighted that the men of the town have turned their lustful thoughts from Liz to Grace.  At the end of two weeks Grace has proved she is a good citizen and is allowed to stay in Dogville.  The next few months are happy ones for Grace and for the people of Dogville as well as she continues to become more and more a major part of everyone’s lives and they hail her at the town’s 4th of July celebration as a veritable spirit of life that has rejuvenated them all.

But then the police arrive with wanted posters bearing Grace’s picture and the claim that she has been involved in bank robberies where people were killed.  Did she really commit these crimes or have the gangsters who still pursue her set her up?  It hardly matters as the citizens of Dogville arrive at an unspoken agreement to exploit and abuse Grace.  In a frighteningly short space of time she goes from being the town’s bright angel of joy to their community dog, leashed to a huge rusty metal wheel so that she cannot run away and subjected to nightly rape by every man in town and a slave to the women who force her to perform every filthy task they can think of.   She is beaten, humiliated and degraded in various ways and she cannot even count on Tom who claims to love her but is so wrapped in his intellectual righteousness that he cannot think straight.  Indeed it is Tom who contacts the gangsters looking for Grace and they arrive in four long black cars full of men with guns, led by James Caan who reveals Grace’s secret to us (but not the townspeople) and initiates the horrifying conclusion of the film which is based on Grace’s new understanding of human nature as taught to her by the people of Dogville.

DOGVILLE is not an easy film to watch for a lot of reasons.  First, there’s the way it’s filmed: the movie is shot on a stage-like set where the streets and houses are indicated by chalk lines on the floor with the names of the streets and who lives in the houses written on the floor.  There are few props, just enough to give us an idea of where we are and what’s going and that’s it.  This means that the entire cast is on film at all times.  Even if we’re watching a scene between Grace and Tom in Tom’s house, the other actors can be seen going about their business in the background in the spaces designated as their houses.  This technique is particularly unsettling during a rape scene where we can see what is going on but the other actors (whose characters are all in their own houses, of course) are going about mundane everyday chores while such brutality is going on just an arm’s length away.  It’s also told in chapters like a novel and there’s a God-like narrator (John Hurt) who provides us with telling information on events that we can plainly see for ourselves and others that we can’t.

The performances are really good in this movie.  I like Nicole Kidman an awful lot but she suffers from the same thing here that I thought she did in “Cold Mountain”: she’s simply too beautiful in every scene.  Even when she’s supposed to be suffering the deepest depths of emotional and physical degradation she looks absolutely gorgeous.  Maybe that’s supposed to be the point, I dunno.  But she’s really good here and I especially enjoyed her scenes with Old Schoolers Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara who seem to enjoy their scenes with Nicole Kidman as much as she does.  And Paul Bettany plays a character who believes that just because he’s got a few more brain cells than most, that makes him better than anybody else.  I was glad for what happened to him even while I was surprised and horrified by what happened to the other citizens of Dogville.

So should you see DOGVILLE?  Well, it’s not a date movie or the feel good movie of the year, I can tell you that right off and if you’ve gotten this far then I guess you’ve gotten the point as well.  If you’re a fan of Lars Von Trier as I am then you certainly should see DOGVILLE.  If you’re a fan of experimental film and storytelling techniques as I am, then you certainly should give it a look.  The way Lars Von Trier films it on the bare set with the chalked in outlines and the barest of props gives the movie the feel of a filmed play and I suspect that most of the actors approached the movie that way, as if it were a filmed play rather than a conventional movie.

In doing my research for this review I ran across a whole bunch of stuff written about how Lars Von Trier intends for DOGVILLE to be part of trilogy about he views America and indeed, after the frighteningly callous conclusion we’re treated to a collage of photos of America’s outcasts while David Bowie’s “Young Americans” plays over the credits but I don’t choose to look at DOGVILLE as an indictment of American values.  I think it shows a more basic horror of human nature: what we’re capable of when we have no restraints or checks on our baser natures.  What happens to Grace is horrifying, yes, and when the people of Dogville turn from Grace, Grace turns from herself and that gives the ending of the movie an emotional wallop that reaches deeper than just an exploration into American morals and values.  Von Trier is exploring a very real part of human nature in this movie and while it’s a flawed exploration, it’s well worth seeing.

And if you do watch DOGVILLE and like it, Von Trier has filmed the second part of his proposed “USA-Land of Opportunity” trilogy.  “Manderlay” is a direct sequel to DOGVILLE, taking up right after that movie ends and continues Grace’s story as she discovers a rural Alabama plantation where slavery still exists.

Rated R:  For nudity, brutal rape scenes and the mature nature of the subject matter.  If you ain’t got the point by now, let me make it clear: this ain’t for kids or adults lacking a thick skin.

3 hours

Immortals

2011

Universal Pictures

Directed by Tarsem Singh

Produced by Mark Canton and Ryan Kavanaugh

Written by Vlas Parlapanides and Charley Parlapanides

When I first saw “The Cell” way back in 2000 I knew right there and then that Tarsem Singh was a director I’d be watching.  When so many directors are content to offer us product, Tarsem Singh goes way out there in order to give us movies that are visual treats.  “The Cell” is perhaps the most original serial killer movie I’ve ever seen in terms of story and visuals.  I wasn’t as excited with his second feature, “The Fall”.  Oh, it’s gorgeous to look at and at times even eye-popping but the story is muddled and while watching it I wished mightily that Tarsem had done it as a straight-up adventure fantasy and left the real world stuff for another movie.  It’s worth watching, believe me.  But it’s an effort to try and marry up two totally different movies into one and that trick rarely works.

So where does IMMORTALS stand when placed up against this director’s other two movies?  I still say that “The Cell” is his best movie and “The Fall” his poorest so I guess that leaves IMMORTALS in the middle.  It’s as outrageously visual as those other movies and indeed, I’d recommend the movie solely on that basis.  But I gotta be honest and tell you that the story could use work.  IMMORTALS is a very confused movie as it flip-flops back and forth because it can’t make up it’s mind if it wants to be “300” or 2010’s “Clash of The Titans”

In ancient Greece, the ruthless and powerful King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) runs amuck.  He’s looting, killing, pillaging, raping and generally carrying on cranky in his quest to find The Epirus Bow.  Once wielded by Ares himself, The Epirus Bow is the only thing that can release The Titans from their imprisonment deep in the bowels of Mount Tartarus.  Now if The Titans are released, that is going to mean very bad things not only for humanity but for The Gods of Olympus.  To put it mildly.

Zeus (Luke Evans) the King of The Gods of Olympus forbids his fellow gods to interfere, decreeing that the humans must be allowed to exercise free will and settle this matter themselves.  That’s all well and good and noble, Zeus’ daughter Athena (Isabel Lucas) says wisely.  And just as wisely she points out that it’s their immortal asses The Titans are gonna come for when they get free.

But Zeus has placed his faith in Theseus (Henry Cavill) a humble peasant who nonetheless demonstrates astounding fighting skills that would wring tears of envy from a Spartan.  Theseus has no belief or faith in the gods and would rather be left alone and not get involved.  But fate has other plans for him and soon, Theseus finds himself on a quest to find The Epirus Bow for himself, joined by the Oracle Phaedra (Frieda Pinto) and the wily master thief Stavros (Stephen Dorff).

I can’t stress enough how amazing the movie looks.  I’d love to see what Tarsem could do with a movie based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser.  And Tarsem does a great job of swiping Zack Snyder’s style of directing fight scenes.  There’s a scene where Theseus is trying to rescue his mother by cutting his way through a bunch of soldiers who apparently were tired of living and if I didn’t know I was watching IMMORTALS I’d have sworn it was a scene from “300” And there’s a kick-ass throwdown between The Olympians and The Titans that is simply astounding.  There just isn’t any other word for it.

That’s the good stuff.  The bad? We’ve got big long gaps between the awesome fight scenes and those are scenes that are way too serious for this material.  Let’s be honest here: IMMORTALS at its core is a 1950’s Italian sword-and-sandal epic on CGI steroids.  And only Stephen Dorff seems to realize that’s what it is and acts accordingly.  He’s nothing but fun every time he’s on screen.  Mickey Rourke is also fun but in a different way.  I’m convinced he was channeling Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” He’s got several scenes where he’s sitting in shadow, delivering these baffling speeches about destiny and legend and leaving his footprint on the world.  I’m convinced that his army wears masks all the time so that the confused looks on their faces won’t give them away and incur Hyperion’s wrath.  But still, he’s Mickey Rourke and I wouldn’t have missed seeing him in a fantasy adventure movie for all the sugar in Cuba.

What else?  Henry Cavill reminded me a lot of Sam Worthington in 2010’s “Clash of The Titans” in that he looks and acts appropriately heroic as he’s supposed to.  As his Oracle, Frieda Pinto is drop-dead gorgeous.  But can she act? you ask.  You can keep on asking.  I dunno.  She’s drop-dead gorgeous, I toldja.  I quite enjoyed Luke Evans as Zeus even though his wardrobe leaves a lot to be desired.  Say what you want about Liam Neeson’s sparkly armor, as least he knew how to dress like the King of The Gods.  Still, Luke Evans and Isabel Lucas provided me with some of the movie’s best scenes.

So should you see IMMORTALS?  It depends. I hesitate to recommend a movie simply on it’s visuals but that is the strongest aspect of IMMORTALS.  And those visuals are best enjoyed on a movie screen.  However, if you’ve got one of those wall sized flatscreens, it should look amazing on Blu-Ray. I recently watched it on Netflix as it’s currently available for streaming and it still looked gorgeous.   But however you see it, IMMORTALS is worth seeing because it’s the vision of a truly talented director with a remarkable style of his own.  One worth nurturing and supporting.

110 minutes

Rated R