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Divine Grace: Kidman in Dogville.

Your Town
By Shawn Stone

Directed by Lars von Trier

He may have angered movie-goers before with his relentless, even cruel, dramas of God and fate, but Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier cheerfully takes provocation to the next level with Dogville. The first of three projected films about America, this drama takes us deep into the dark heart of a miserable little Rocky Mountain town called (you guessed it) Dogville. If this story is really about the land of the free and the home of the brave, then we’re a craven, ungrateful and essentially evil folk unworthy of redemption.

To be sure, that’s a harsh judgment. To be generous to the austere Dane, however, Dogville serves as a counterbalance to the reassuring sentiment of something like Our Town, which it superficially resembles. If everyone in Thornton Wilder’s homey village is basically good and things work out for the best, everyone in Dogtown is weak and life remains barren and pointless. Or, as Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard), one of Dogtown’s unhappy residents, mutters, “I’ve found out that people are the same all over. Greedy as animals. In a small town they’re just a bit less successful.”

The Our Town comparisons begin with the opening shots of the single set on which Dogville unfolds. The town is delineated in chalk on a stage: streets and buildings, flora and fauna. (Fauna? Chuck’s dog Moses can be heard barking and growling, but he’s still just another outline on the floor.) There’s an all-knowing, though unseen, narrator (John Hurt), who comments on the action with a mix of droll humor and withering sarcasm.

To this grim locale, von Trier introduces an innocent lamb. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is sweet, sensible and generous. On the run from black-clad gangsters in sleek automobiles, she stumbles, inevitably, up a dead-end mountain road into Dogville. (I forgot to mention that Dogville is located, more or less, at the end of the world.) That’s when the real misery begins.

In the absence of a preacher, the town’s self-appointed moral compass is young Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany). Tom fancies himself a writer, but, as the narrator explains, “in order to postpone the day when he would have to put pen to paper in earnest, he had come up with a series of town meetings on the subject of moral rearmament.”

Beware the do-gooder. Tom makes Grace the subject of such a meeting, casting her arrival as a test for the town: Will they rise to the occasion and shelter this vulnerable fugitive? Reluctantly, they agree. At first things go well, as the town accepts Grace, and she begins to love the townsfolk. She helps out the sad blind man, McKay (Ben Gazzara). She befriends Chuck’s unhappy wife Vera (Patricia Clarkson), and reads to their children. She tends Ma Ginger’s (Lauren Bacall) gooseberry bushes.

Grace’s goodness is not enough to ameliorate the powerlessness of her position, however, and power begins to corrupt the not-so-good people of Dogville. Mistrust grows into resentment, which blooms into hatred. The relationship becomes a kind of microcolonialism, with all the attendant abuses. The filmmaker does not spare Grace, or the audience.

All this plays out over three hours. It builds slowly, but purposefully, through each uncivilized twist of human nature, each unspeakable cruelty—and ends, absurdly, with a philosophical discussion about arrogance and vengeance between Grace and the gangster (James Caan) who’s been looking for her. Well, it doesn’t exactly end there, but it wouldn’t be nice to spoil the Brechtian (and hugely satisfying) climax.

No, Dogville isn’t particularly pleasant. And no, it isn’t like any other film you’ve ever seen. But that’s what makes it special—a film should vomit on its audience once in a while. After all, the body needs bile as well as blood to function properly.

Monster’s Bull

Van Helsing
Directed by Stephen Sommers

The long, loud and cartoon- ishly violent opening sequence to Van Helsing finds the world-famous monster slayer (Hugh Jackman) battling an oddly Hulk-like Mr. Hyde in Paris. The sequence is filmed in black-and-white, as an homage to Universal Studios’ 1930s horror movies. It’s an homage that should have Hyde, Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man—all of whom appear in this cheesy pastiche by the talentless plagiarist, Stephen Sommers—howling in offense. With the help of electric rotary blades apparently powered by his coat sleeves, Van Helsing defeats his brainless, bouncing adversary. He then gallops off to Rome for his next assignment, and is ordered to Transylvania by the red-robed head of the Vatican’s secret evil-fighting agency. If you think that sounds ridiculous, just wait until Van Helsing gets to the Carpathians. Sommers is so unconcerned with realism that he presents Transylvania as a village, not a region, and that’s just for starters (by the way, the film’s vaunted exterior shots get only seconds of screen time).

Although Van Helsing lacks a coherent story line, there’s a lot going on, all of it colossally silly. The village, which has been preyed upon by Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) for centuries, is under the control of a pointless character named Top Hat, an irritating nod to the Phantom of the Opera. He seems to exist in a separate movie from Anna (Kate Beckinsale), a bodice-heaving beauty who has dedicated her life to ridding the village of Dracula while simultaneously saving her brother from the family curse of werewolfism. It doesn’t help that Dracula has the local werewolves under his spell, and that he’s experimenting on Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley) in order to bring his own ungodly brood to life. For some reason, these pod-encased fetal blood-suckers resemble baby gargoyles. They also pop like jelly-filled balloons once their brief life span expires. None of this is in the least bit creepy, scary, or even interesting. Sommers uses Universal’s time-honored creatures for their resonance of fear and pathos, without making a single effort at creating any of his own.

Van Helsing proves his valor when he wards off an attack by Dracula’s brides, who transform into flying plaster statues at the drop of a hat. All the creatures travel faster than a speeding train and possess superhuman strength, facts that Sommers gets around with inventively gymnastic but nonsensical fight scenes. Since this hyperactive movie is almost all action, all the time, the encounters of man-against-monster quickly become tiring, as do all the anatomical transformations from human form to monster mode. Similar to his Mummy movies, Sommers shows a fondness for distended jaws and gigantic fangs, giving the attacking creatures an unintended visual absurdity.

There’s no internal logic guiding the mayhem: the human do-gooders survive death-dealing blows with barely a scratch, the vampires walk by day and laugh at holy water, and the werewolves turn human at the merest passing of a cloud. Since anything goes and nothing matters—other than showcasing a parade of none-too-fresh CGI effects—every new gee-whiz scenario bogs down in boredom, even Dracula’s magically secret castle-laboratory. For amusement, audiences may want to play Guess the Source, as almost every frame of Van Helsing has been pillaged from another movie. Yet the film it most brings to mind is the pop-ironic and soddenly campy Moulin Rouge. To which Van Helsing suffers in comparison, since its dialogue is too witless even to qualify as camp. Only a deftly geeky David Wenham as Friar Carl, Van Helsing’s Bondian gadget-maker and medievalist sidekick, manages to bring some humor to his clichéd character.

Van Helsing’s first name is Gabriel, although no one is going to confuse him with Bram Stoker’s brilliant Abraham Van Helsing, especially since he’s merely a pale and gloomy imitation of Indiana Jones. Even the dashing Jackman can’t give life to this cardboard cutout. And neither can Anna, whose reckless bravery requires her to jump around like Wonder Wench. As usual, Beckinsale provides a sexy mannequin for the costume designer and not much else, while Roxburgh (the lecherous Duke in Moulin Rouge) is blandly affected as Dracula, although the blame lies with the character, written as equal parts aging goth boy and corporate tyrant. Somehow, he and Van Helsing know each other from a run-in 400 years ago, a bit of arcana that’s never explained—perhaps Sommers is hoping audiences will be too razzle-dazzled to notice. More likely, they’ll be too annoyed to care.

—Ann Morrow

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