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

Mister Buddwing



Directed by Delbert Mann

Produced by Delbert Mann and Douglas Lawrence

Screenplay by Dale Wasserman

Based on the novel “Buddwing” by Evan Hunter

James Garner is one of the most liked, best respected and just plain real people working in Hollywood to this very day.  I feel like he’s a friend since I remember watching him in the TV western “Maverick” with my father when I was a kid back in the late 60’s/early 70’s.  And through the years I’ve watched and enjoyed James Garner in both movies and TV shows.  I could be wrong but I’d be willing to bet that James Garner was the first TV star to parley that small screen stardom to movies successfully both financially and critically.

Most certainly he clicks with audiences.  Even when I was a kid my father would say that anything James Garner was in, he’d watch.  And even today my father will drop anything he’s doing to watch “The Great Escape”.  And Mr. Garner has most certainly secured his spot in Television History as the star of what many consider to be the best Private Eye series ever: “The Rockford Files”.  Me, I’d give that honor to Tom Selleck and “Magnum, P.I.” but we’ll save that argument for another time.

I’ve always liked James Garner more in movies.  Such as “Skin Game” where he and Lou Gossett, Jr. played pre-Civil War era conmen.  Or “The Great Escape” or “Grand Prix” or “Marlowe” or “They Only Kill Their Masters” or “Support Your Local Sheriff” with the delightful Joan Hackett who had Demi Moore’s voice long before Demi Moore was born.  And knew how to use it better.  And then there’s the great western “Duel at Diablo” he made with Sidney Poitier and Dennis Weaver.  Here you have three of the nicest, most gentlemanly men in Hollywood playing total bastards and having a great time doing it.  In later years James Garner delighted me in movies such as “Victor/Victoria” and a movie that I am making your homework assignment for the week: “Sunset” a pulp action adventure from 1988 with Mr. Garner playing an aged but still badass Wyatt Earp acting as consultant to movie cowboy Tom Mix (Bruce Willis).  The two of them get involved in a whole lotta hijinks I wouldn’t dare spoil for those of you who haven’t seen “Sunset” But take it from me: it’s a helluva fun movie.  And most of it is due to the performance of James Garner.

MISTER BUDDWING begins with a man (James Garner) waking up on a Central Park bench.  He has no memory of who he is or how he got there.  A search of his pockets turns up a train schedule, a folded up piece of paper with a phone number written on it and two white pills.  He has no identification but he is wearing a silver opal ring.  The opal is cracked and there is an inscription inside the ring.  All of these are the only clues to his identity.

He calls the number and finds it belongs to a prostitute (Angela Lansbury) who says she doesn’t know him but gives him coffee, money and sends him off on a day long quest to find out who he is.  That quest will introduce him to three very different women.  All of these women he calls ‘Grace’.  They tell him that they aren’t Grace.  But he follows them into some very disturbing scenarios.  Some that appears to play out his past life.

Who is Grace?  Is she real?  Are these real women or just psychotic fantasies of Mister Buddwing?  Are they aspects of the real Grace his disturbed mind has fragmented into separate personalities?  Who are they and who is he?  MISTER BUDDWING isn’t the type of movie you plan for a Saturday night when you and your lady or you and your boys just want to kick back with a fun movie.  It’s one of those movies that likes to play with your head.  Halfway through the movie Mister Buddwing is presented with the possibility that he’s an escaped mental patient with homicidal tendencies.  Certainly his behavior might seem to suggest that.  But as the day goes on and he has his encounters with the three Graces (Katherine Ross, Suzanne Pleshette and Jean Simmons) He gradually comes to realize that there’s a more horrifying reason behind his amnesia.

MISTER BUDDWING is a movie I place in the same catergory with “Angel Heart” It’s a movie where the main character is trying to solve a mystery and the solution turns out to be worse than the mystery itself.  Oh, MISTER BUDDWING is nowhere near as graphic as “Angel Heart” but the solution of the mystery is no less frightening.

The performances are all out of the box.  Angela Lansbury is terrific as the over-the-hill whore who puts Mister Buddwing on the path to find out who he is.  And as the three aspects of Grace: Katherine Ross is just okay.  Suzanne Pleshette has always been one of my favorite actresses and one who I felt never got the career she deserved.  She also looks totally hot in a scene where she’s wearing a white trenchcoat and go-go boots.  Some of the hotness is taken out of what happens later on in that scene.

Jean Simmons is totally amazing with her platinum blond hair and whorish attitude.  It’s a performance unlike any you might have seen her in before and it’s amazing to watch.  And if you needed any other inducement to watch this movie, there’s a scene with Nichelle Nichols and Jean Simmons down on their knees in dresses up to here shootin’ dice and exhorting; “Give it to me the hard way BABY!”

It’s also a movie worth watching for the beautiful black-and-white photography and the view of a New York that doesn’t exist anymore.  Movies like MISTER BUDDWING I recommend not only as a good movie but as a history lesson.  The New York in MISTER BUDDWING I barely remember but it’s one that is worth you visiting.

So should you see MISTER BUDDWING?  Well, unless you have Turner Classic Movies, you won’t.  It’s not available on DVD or Netflix.  But if you are a fan of James Garner and you have TCM on your satellite/cable provider then by all means, please give it a viewing.

110 minutes

Shock Corridor


Allied Artists

Written, Directed and Produced by Samuel Fuller

Samuel Fuller is one of my heroes.  A man of staggering talent as a novelist, screenwriter and director, his films are among my favorite because they’re flat out pulp.  Sometimes lurid pulp, sure.  But isn’t that the best kind?  I like Mr. Fuller’s movies a lot because there’s no pretension in them.  And the protagonists of a lot of his movies aren’t heroic or even likeable.  He serves them up exactly as they are and he lets you decide who and what they are.  And as a result he comes closer to art than writer/directors who deliberately start out with lofty goals of cinematic immortality.  Sam Fuller just wanted to tell a good story.  And SHOCK CORRIDOR is one of his best.

Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is already touched with a kind of madness when we first meet him.  He’s being coached by Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) how to behave like a sexual deviant.  Johnny’s madness is the single-minded pursuit of fame and he’ll do anything to write a Pulitzer Prize winning story.  Even if the story is inside of an insane asylum.  Johnny is determined to solve a murder that took place in the facility.  There are three witnesses to the murder and they’re all insane themselves.  Johnny’s plan is simple: he’ll pretend to be insane, get himself committed to the asylum and then question the three witnesses, solve the murder, write the story and collect his Pulitzer.  Hell, he may even get a book or movie deal out of it he excitedly explains to any one who will listen.

His stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) hates the plan and thinks that if Johnny spends too long in there, he’ll end up with the spots on his dice missing as well.  But the plan needs her co-operation as she has to pretend to be Johnny’s sister and swear out a complaint against him.

Johnny gets inside and begins his investigation.  But it’s nowhere near as easy as he thought it would be.  After all, it’s tough pretending you’re crazy when you’re not.  Unless, of course you happen to be surrounded by madmen more than willing to show you how it’s done.  And those megavolt shock treatments don’t help either.  Or being raped by nymphomaniacs.  And you stick to your cover story of your girlfriend being your sister to the extent that you actually start to believe she is your sister.   Johnny doggedly pursues his quest and pieces together clues even while his own mind starts to come slowly apart.

SHOCK CORRIDOR is one of those movies made with such raw fearlessness that it amazes me that it was made during the 60’s.  Sam Fuller isn’t afraid to go for broke and his depictions of the various kinds of crazy suffered by the inmates range from humorous to downright horrifying.  There’s a big, friendly bearded bear of a guy who calls himself Pagliacci and sings opera.  At the other end of the spectrum there’s Trent (Hari Rhodes) who was the first black student admitted to an all-white Southern college.  Trent cracked under the strain of living in what was for him enemy territory.  And when I say he cracked I mean he busted wide open.  Trent steals pillowcases to make hoods, declares himself Grand Wizard of The KKK and spends his days inciting attacks on the other black inmates and giving brutally racist monologues.

It’s Hari Rhodes who steals the acting honors in this one.  Trent is truly a terrifyingly tragic character and Rhodes plays him for all he’s worth.  Peter Breck never impressed me much as an actor and I attribute his amazing performance in SHOCK CORRIDOR to Sam Fuller’s direction.  It’s a brutally comprehensive character arc Johnny Barrett goes through and Breck is totally committed to selling the character and the story.  Constance Towers is good here as well, equally as good as she is in “The Naked Kiss” another Sam Fuller movie that you should definitely check out.

So should you see SHOCK CORRIDOR?  Chances are if you’re familiar with Sam Fuller you already have.  If you’ve never seen a Sam Fuller movie then this is a great one to start with.  I also highly recommend “The Steel Helmet” “The Naked Kiss” “Forty Guns” “The Crimson Kimono” and “The Big Red One”.  But for me, none of them pack the punch delivered by SHOCK CORRIDOR.  Enjoy.

101 minutes

Barton Fink


20th Century Fox

Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan and Joel Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen are quite simply masters at what they do; which is making entertaining movies that have a lot more going on than you see the first time. They’ve made some of my favorite films such as “Raising Arizona”, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, and the magnificent “Miller’s Crossing”, which is one of the best gangster movies ever made. If you haven’t seen any of their movies, you need to rectify that error and Netflix them.

BARTON FINK was written when the Brothers Coen suffered writer’s block while working on the screenplay for “Miller’s Crossing” and all I can say is this: if this is the kind of story they came up with when they were blocked, they oughta get blocked more often.

Barton Fink is a New York playwright enjoying success on Broadway with his latest play in the year 1941. His agent wrangles a deal for Barton to go work in Hollywood. Capital Studios is offering Barton $2,000 a week to write movies for them. And back in those days, $2,000 a week was a fortune. Barton doesn’t want to go but his agent wisely advises him that if he takes the deal, he can put food on his table and keep a roof over his head while Barton writes the stuff he really wants to write. Barton finally accepts and goes out to Hollywood where he takes a room in The Hotel Earle, a really odd establishment that seems to have only two employees; a decrepit elevator operator who appears to be nearly ossified and the cheerful desk clerk Chet (Steve Buscemi)

Barton immediately catches writer’s block since he’s never written a movie script before. Hell, he doesn’t even go to movies and his first assignment is to script a wrestling movie starring Wallace Beery. Barton seeks help from a variety of characters such as the alcoholic writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub)

Part of Barton’s problem is that his thinking too much is getting in the way of his job. You see, he claims he wants to write about the common man but he actually knows bupkis about his intended subject. This is pointed out in a series of scenes with the producer Ben Geisler who replies to Barton’s dilemma with exasperation: “What do you need to know? It’s a wrestling picture! It’s not  Hamlet!”

Geisler has a terrific scene where he takes Barton to lunch and advises him to talk to another writer and Barton asks where does he find a writer in Hollywood. Geisler replies with one of my Top Ten Favorite Lines Of All Time; “This town is lousy with ‘em…throw a rock and you’ll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink…when you throw that rock…throw it hard.” I watch Tony Shaloub in this movie and in “Monk” and it’s amazing to me that it’s the same actor playing these characters.

Barton has a next-door neighbor in the Hotel Earle, an insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows who tries to help Barton out with his writer’s block. Hell, Charlie figures that you can’t get more common man than him, but he soon finds that Barton is more interested in ranting about his own theories on what the common man wants than actually finding out what the common man thinks. The theme of Barton’s ignorance about what he thinks writing is supposed to be runs through the entire movie and is handled in some very funny scenes. There’s one in which Barton having a picnic with Mayhew and his secretary and Barton is spouting hyper-intellectual felgercarb about writing and how it’s this divine calling and he cannot separate himself from his art. Mayhew gives him this really pitying look and says;  “I just like making things up.”

But BARTON FINK isn’t just about a writer’s trials and tribulations in Hollywood. It’s also about a grisly, horrifying murder and a frightening revelation concerning the jovial, amiable Charlie Meadows that just may have infernal origins. If you’ve seen BARTON FINK then you know exactly what I’m talking about and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for those of you who haven’t. But at the same time BARTON FINK is also a very funny movie and sometimes you don’t know if you should be laughing or not. And indeed, there are scenes where Barton himself doesn’t know if he should be taking the people he’s talking to seriously or not.  Such as two police detectives who appear to take a perverse delight in the way they verbally ping-pong their interrogation of Barton back and forth like Abbott and Costello doing “Who’s On First?”

One of the fun things about this movie is that there’s always something new I see every time I view it (which is about once a year) and I delight in the performances of John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis and John Mahoney (who delivers the funniest rendition of ‘Old Black Joe’ I’ve ever heard) as well as the way the story is told. Jon Polito is also on hand playing the virtual slave of a fierce studio boss (Michael Lerner) And if anybody can figure out just what the final scene of the movie is about, email me and give a brother a clue, wouldja?

116 minutes
Barton Fink is rated R for language and mature themes. There’s no graphic sex in the movie and the implied violence is more grisly than any violence we actually see.

Frankie & Alice


Freestyle Releasing

Directed by Geoffrey Sax

Produced by Halle Berry

Screenplay by Mary King and Joe Shrapnel

Based on a story by Oscar Janigier and Philip Goldberg

Halle Berry as an actress is a source of enormous frustration to me.  When she buckles down and does the work she can be a truly compelling professional whose performance reaches amazing levels.  She impressed me way back in 1995’s “Losing Isaiah” and 1999’s “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”.  I wasn’t at all happy with her as Storm in the X-Men movies but that was more miscasting than anything else.  I still don’t see what everybody else saw in “Monster’s Ball” but that probably because I can never stay awake until the end.  And I think she forgot in “Die Another Day” that James Bond fans go to see James Bond because he’s supposed to be the star of the movie.  Not the Bond girl.

So yeah, that’s why Halle Berry frustrates me.  I think there’s a genuine love of acting there and I believe that she’s yet to produce a truly great performance that equals the one she gave in “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” which remains my favorite of her movies.  But until she does produce that great performance, FRANKIE & ALICE is a respectable placeholder.

Frankie Murdoch (Halle Berry) is a stripper in a L.A. men’s club during the 70’s.  Like you would expect, she’s sassy, loud, full of herself and a living volcano of sexual energy.  But she’s also a very troubled woman.  She’s always behind in her rent because she writes checks and can’t remember when she wrote them.  She has clothes and wigs in her closet she doesn’t remember buying.  Hearing certain sounds or songs on the radio trigger attacks of repressed memory that result in fugue states where Frankie’s body is taken over by one of two other personalities: Genius, a seven year old child whose I.Q rivals that of Einstein.  And Alice, a racist Southern white woman.  Yeah, you read that right.  What complicates the situation is that while Frankie is unaware of Alice’s existence, Alice knows all about Frankie and detests the fact they have to share the same body.

Luckily Frankie comes into the care of Dr. Oz (Stellan Skarsgard) who is reluctant at first to take her case.  But the more he talks to her, the more he realizes that she can help him prove his theories on dissociative identity disorder.  It’s a theory his immediate supervisor Dr. Strassfield (Matt Frewer) isn’t too sure about.  Given Frankie’s lifestyle, her drinking, sexual promiscuity and drug use, Dr. Strassfield naturally thinks she could be faking just to get out of serving a stiff jail sentence.

It’s up to Dr. Oz (I swear that’s the character’s name, I’m not making it up) to probe the deeply buried memories Frankie herself has forgotten.  And through hypnosis he doggedly peels back the layers of Frankie’s life to expose a series of truly nightmarish events that caused her condition.

Now before you get all excited let me say right up front that FRANKIE & ALICE is a movie that back in the time period its set in would have been an ABC Movie of The Week.  Because that’s what I felt like I was watching.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad movie.  Matter of fact, it’s pretty good.  Halle Berry and Stellan Skarsgard perform like the professionals they are and the relationship between their characters is warm and feels real.  Phylicia Rashad also turns in solid supporting work as Frankie’s mother who harbors some pretty dark secrets of her own.  But it’s not a really compelling movie that I can give it a Must See recommendation.  But it is a respectable and competent piece of filmmaking that demonstrates more than anything else that when she wants to, Halle Berry can act and act very well indeed.

101 minutes

Rated R