This is the first film in Lars von Trier’s USA – Land Of Opportunities trilogy, which is rounded out by Manderlay and a future film to be titled Washington. In this first film, a woman named Grace, on the run from the troubles of her past, wanders into the small town of Dogville. After a debate on whether or not Grace should be allowed to stay, the local townspeople end up accepting her into the community. After awhile though, once everyone starts to realize that Grace relies upon them to keep her safe, they start to take advantage of her in a variety of ways, leading up to a climax of extreme and unmerciful violence. von Trier chooses to stage all of this on a large soundstage, with a bare minimum of props and sets and the actors oftentimes miming their actions, Our Town style. The acting subsequently feels deliberately artificial, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. Kidman is actually very good here as the central figure as Grace, in one of her last performances before her transformation into a wax mannequin, and she’s backed up by an equally impressive supporting cast, with Paul Bettany in particular standing out from the pack. There’s a kind of theatrical quality to the performances, which, when coupled with the bare soundstage, emphasizes the idea that nothing happening onscreen is supposed to be taken literally. The film is open to a variety of interpretations and opinions, but it’s not very difficult to view the general narrative as an allegorical commentary on America’s treatment of immigrants. The residents of Dogville, despite their initial welcoming of Grace, end up exploiting her helplessness and dependency for their own selfish aims. It’s certainly a view of America as seen from an outsider, and there is a level of ridiculous exaggeration that could only come from someone who is on the outside looking in. But there is also an strong element of truth in it, and that in the end is what makes the film fascinating and worthwhile. 9/10.
This is the second year in a row now where the first film I’ve seen in theaters has been from director Steven Soderbergh (apparently that won’t be happening next year though, as Soderbergh has said this is his last theatrical film). Where last year’s Haywire was firmly grounded in the action genre and centered around three fight sequences with MMA fighter Gina Carano giving severe beatdowns to her attractive male co-stars (Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor), Soderbergh’s latest is more in the vein of classic Alfred Hitchcock films, a low-key suspense thriller built around a slight subversion of the classic “Wrong Man” scenario. The film makes some explicit references to Psycho, from its opening shot to some of the twists that occur throughout the narrative. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns do a surprisingly good job burying any obvious twist elements, so that when they eventually do come, they feel natural to the plot, making it easier to go along some of the film’s more credibility-straining turns. So that’s all good fun, and while the film does play around a little bit with issues relating to the modern tendency of doctors to take the easy route with patients and just prescribe pills, as well as their own complicity when situations turn tragic, the film ends up working best simply as a twisty genre thriller. It does suffer somewhat from a protracted ending that goes to great lengths to explain every little detail, and despite a particularly spicy distraction that pops up in the endgame, it does have one of those Murder, She Wrote final moments when the guilty party is tricked into blurting out their secrets. But even with those more formulaic genre elements, it’s still very enjoyable, and if this really is Soderbergh’s last theatrical film, it’s a perfectly respectable outing to go out on. 7/10.
There is a very interesting moment in Final Cut, the documentary on the making of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, when someone talks about the promising crop of new filmmakers in the tail end of the 1970s. Coming off enormous critical and commercial successes, these directors were given permission by Hollywood to go off on their own personal vanity projects, and the results were disastrous, effectively killing off the industry’s brief focus on auteur-driven cinema. One of these promising young directors was William Friedkin, who, after making The French Connection and The Exorcist, embarked on this remake of the 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot classic The Wages Of Fear, about a group of desperate men transporting crates of volatile nitroglycerin through inhospitable terrains. You wouldn’t know it was a remake from the outset of the film though, which features about a half hour of aimless back-story that gives the viewer characters but no characterization. That opening segment effectively sums up why the film doesn’t work, despite the talent both in front of and behind the camera. Despite the lengthy setup, the viewer never learns anything about the main characters other than how they get to be where they are. The Wages Of Fear has a lengthy setup as well, but that time is spent actually getting to know all the central players, so that when the suspense starts to ratchet up in the second half, we’re emotionally invested in their fates. In one of the remake’s cruelest moments, one of the men finally opens up a little to talk about his past, and then he’s abruptly killed off, almost as if Friedkin is actively rejecting the idea of any complex characterization. To give Friedkin credit, he absolutely nails the sense of place; everything was filmed on location, and the actors sure look like they went through hell to get the film made. But without any kind of emotional connection to the characters, all that’s left is a string of suspense set-pieces, only one of which (the bridge sequence pictured above) rivals anything from the Clouzot film. In the end, you end up wondering what exactly this remake brought to the table that wasn’t already accomplished better in The Wages Of Fear, and the answer is not very much. 4/10.
Joint Security Area
This early film from director Park Chan-wook is a procedural drama about an investigation into a violent incident in the Joint Security Area separating North and South Korea. As the investigation continues forward, more and more details are revealed concerning the friendly relationships between the soldiers involved on both sides, and how those relationships ultimately meet a tragic end because of the politics surrounding them. To a certain extent, the film’s message does end up crossing into “Why can’t we be friends?” territory, but the material is saved from ever becoming trite by the direction and the central performances from the always reliable Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho. As someone who doesn’t particularly care for most of Park’s “revenge trilogy” (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) and the sometimes-obnoxious stylistic excesses that permeated those films, it was nice to see him employ a more restrained and, from my perspective, more confident directorial touch. It’s still a stylish film, but perhaps because there’s a little more substance here than in his other work, Park keeps his eccentricities mostly off the screen. There are some scenes where, due to the nature of the plot, the impartial investigators are required to speak English with each other. Park has a little trouble directing the dialogue in these scenes, resulting in some stilted deliveries from the actors, which robs a couple substantial moments of their full impact. The film’s flashback structure also causes some confusion at the beginning, but once everything settles down to tell the story of the friendship between the North and South soldiers and how it eventually all went wrong, the effect is quietly impactful. I’m not sure the film reaches quite the same heights as Park’s vampire film Thirst, but it’s still one of his best efforts. 8/10.
Wake In Fright
The history behind this film from director Ted Kotcheff is almost as interesting as the film itself. Originally released in 1971 to decent critical acclaim but public disapproval in Australia, the film essentially disappeared without a trace for a span of over 30 years. A print was rediscovered in the early part of the last decade, and was rescued in the nick of time from being destroyed. That print underwent a long restoration process, and the result is what you see on the recently-released DVD/Bluray. So the film has had a unique journey to get to where it is today, but that wouldn’t matter all that much if the actual film itself weren’t anything worth remembering. Fortunately, Wake In Fright is pretty damn good, and it deserves to be seen now that it has received a newfound spotlight. Essentially a dark feature-length ode to Australian hospitality, the film follows a young schoolteacher as he passes through a small town on the way to Sydney for a vacation. While there, under the influence of the town’s friendly inhabitants and more than a little alcohol, he loses all of his money gambling. Disillusioned and desperate, he gets roped into all manner of seedy activities, culminating in a grisly kangaroo hunt (the footage of which was taken from an actual hunt). In a strange way, it reminded me of horror films like The Wicker Man, where the friendly exteriors of the townspeople mask a hidden darkness underneath. Wake In Fright is not overtly a horror film, but there is an unsettling intensity through it all that makes the comparison seem appropriate. The performances from Gary Bond and especially Donald Pleasance are terrific, but the real star of the film is the Australian landscape, which, very much like in other Australian films such as Walkabout and The Proposition, is dry and sunny, barren and dangerous. I plan on expanding more on this one in a separate post, but needless to say I found it a compelling and impressive piece of work. 8/10.
There’s Something About Mary
Full disclosure: I have never seen a film from the Farrelly brothers. Dumb And Dumber was a fairly big touchstone back in the ’90s, but for whatever reason, I never felt very compelled to watch it. And perhaps their most well-regarded and envelope-pushing effort, There’s Something About Mary, was R-rated, and growing up in a more strict household concerning film content there was no way I’d be seeing it. Looking back on this film now, especially in an era when comedies have become much more nasty and mean-spirited, is almost a refreshing experience. I expected the moments of outrageous gross-out humor, including the now-infamous “hair gel” scene. What I wasn’t expecting was Jonathan Richman singing a love song over the opening credits, and appearing every now and then afterwards to serenade the viewer. His presence in the film is kind of critical to my overall impression of it. There’s a sincere sweetness to it, and a kind of giddy charm in seeing just how far you can push the boundaries of taste. Not to say the film is some kind of classic, because not all the comic material is created equal. I could do without Chris Elliott’s skin rash and the frequent jokes with the mentally-challenged brother. Some scenes also fall strangely flat, with little in the way of a proper punch-line (this could be because I watched the extended cut, which runs over two hours). Still, even with the film’s fair number of misses, the moments when the comedy hits, it hits home hard, and that was something that pleasantly surprised me. I can’t say I now feel the need to go seek out the rest of the Farrelly catalogue, as everything I’ve heard tells me this is as good as it gets, but I did find it to be more enjoyable than I was expecting. 6/10.