Dogville (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #25

A quiet little town not far from here.

Full Title: The film “Dogville” as told in nine chapters and a prologue

Country: Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, Germany & the Netherlands
Language: English
Runtime: 178 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st May 2003 (Belgium, Switzerland & France)
UK Release: 13th February 2004
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!, Stoker)
Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Priest)
Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep, The Shootist)
Stellan Skarsgård (Insomnia, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
John Hurt (The Tigger Movie, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer)

Director
Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Antichrist)

Screenwriter
Lars Von Trier (The Idiots, Melancholia)

The Story
On the run from the mob, Grace arrives in the remote town of Dogville. Its residents agree to shelter her in order to prove their community values, though in return she must do chores for them. As the search for the missing woman repeatedly visits the town, the people’s demands for recompense for the risk they are taking intensifies…

Our Hero
Grace is a sweet, desperate young woman, happy to work for the good Christian people of Dogville in payment for their kindness. As her good nature is gradually worn down, she becomes enslaved by them — though it may turn out there’s more to her than meets the eye…

Our Villains
Of course there aren’t any villains in the town of Dogville — everyone’s a morally upstanding citizen.

Best Supporting Character
Not technically a character, but the Narrator is a palpable presence in the film. The material Von Trier has written for him is just the right side of verbose, and John Hurt delivers it with inestimable class.

Memorable Quote
“Whether Grace left Dogville, or on the contrary Dogville had left her — and the world in general — is a question of a more artful nature that few would benefit from by asking, and even fewer by providing an answer. And nor indeed will it be answered here.” — Narrator

Memorable Scene
The scenes that stick in the mind from Dogville — aside from the opening shot I shall discuss next — are either harrowing, spoilersome, or both, and so don’t merit discussion in a format potentially perused by neophytes.

Technical Wizardry
The famous bare set — a black soundstage with chalk markings on the floor to represent the houses, and minimal other features or props — was inspired by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht; as was the film’s plot, so it’s rather apt. The set (or lack thereof) seems like a very “art house” idea, and a distancing one for the viewer, but it’s surprising how quickly you forget and accept it.

Making of
The opening bird’s-eye shot of the town: physically impossible, because the studio’s roof wasn’t high enough, so the final result is actually 156 separate shots stitched together.

Next time…
Supposedly the first part of a trilogy called “USA: Land of Opportunities”. The second part, Manderlay, was released in 2005, starring Bryce Dallas Howard in Kidman’s role. The concluding part, Wasington, seems to have fallen out of Von Trier’s interest.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or.
Won the Palm Dog.

What the Critics Said
“Von Trier’s detractors – and there are many – will argue that this is nothing more than filmed theatre. […] But Anthony Dod Mantle’s digital video camera isn’t simply documenting a performance. It restlessly and fearlessly intrudes into this place and into these lives. Its close-ups – capturing key emotions as they flicker across the characters’ faces – are vital to describing the moral arc of the story. This is something that can only be achieved cinematically, an intensity that’s impossible to render elsewhere, not even from the front row of a playhouse’s stalls.” — Alan Morrison, Empire

Score: 70%

What the American Critics Said
“what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. […] now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie” — Karl Pfeiffer
(That piece goes on to be a very interesting analysis of the film, by-the-way, particularly with regards to it being an allegory for Christianity.)

What the Public Say
“Lars, despite his ever intrusive camera, keeps us at a distance from his characters. This is not a criticism nor do I think this is unintentional. I think he does this to make sure we don’t lose sight of the message he is trying to share with us. He wants us to look at ourselves through these people, not get lost in their drama. The message of Dogville is a pessimistic one: At humanity’s core, we are bad people who will turn on our brother to protect ourselves. Altruism does not exist. Americans are smugly self-righteous. And even those of us who deem ourselves most pure are never above revenge.” — Cineaste

Verdict

It’s no surprise that Lars Von Trier would be responsible for such a provocative, difficult, divisive film — indeed, that’s what all his films are, aren’t they? Whether that works or not is often down to the individual, with each of his films being hailed as masterpieces by some and condemned as drivel by others. Dogville is no different. A three-hour movie that takes place in a black-box theatrical-style environment may sound tough, but engrossing performances and a symbolic storyline with a cathartic ending keep it… not enjoyable, exactly, but fascinating.

#26 will be… 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds from the end.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Transcendence (2014)

2015 #16
Wally Pfister | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 12 / PG-13

TranscendenceChristopher Nolan’s regular director of photography (he’s lensed seven Nolan films, from Memento to The Dark Knight Rises inclusive) makes his directorial debut with this near-future sci-fi thriller.

Johnny Depp plays scientist Will Caster, one of many artificial intelligence developers who are targeted in a coordinated series of assassination attempts by an anti-technology terrorist group. When he dies, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and best friend (Paul Bettany) use his brain patterns to recreate him as an AI. With access to the entirety of human knowledge as found on the internet, plus a mass of computing power and a lot of money, artificial-Will sets about research and development that will change the world. But his new advances may have a more sinister edge…

Transcendence is best known for the massive negative reaction it received on release, from critics and viewers alike. To be frank, I don’t really know why. Some say it’s too slow — well, I thought it moved like the clappers. What I thought was going to be the story was done in under an hour, from which point it spiralled off in new and interesting directions. How good is its science? I don’t know. I also don’t care — it’s about the characters and the spirit of what they do, more than whether it’s all literally possible. As a layperson, I didn’t think it was so ridiculously implausible that it took me out of the movie.

Dell? Maybe if they'd used a Mac...Another element that’s probably too challenging for some is where our allegiances are meant to lie. (Some spoilers follow in this paragraph.) At the start, it’s clear Depp & friends are the heroes and the murderous anti-tech terrorists are the villains. As events unfurl, however, artificial-Will perhaps goes too far, Bettany teams up with the terrorists, and eventually so do the government and Will’s other friends. There is no comeuppance for some characters who are initially begging for it; a good one self-sacrifices somewhat heroically. This doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mould at all (well, the last bit does, sometimes), no doubt to some’s annoyance. The number of people who clamour for any sliver of originality or texture to their blockbusters, but then are unhappy when they actually get it…

Also up for debate is the film’s relationship with technology. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to call it sceptical, maybe even Ludditish. That reading is only emphasised by Pfister’s Nolan-esque insistence of shooting on 35mm film, rather than now-standard digital, and going so far as to grade the movie photochemically rather than use a DI. This is an effects-filled film, too, so in all kinds of ways a computer-based post-production would’ve been the sensible way to go. Whether this insistence on old-school methods is artistically merited or not, it serves to underscore the film’s suspicion of where rampant technological advances may take us in the future.

A flaw I will absolutely acknowledge, however, is the film’s opening: set five years on from Will’s death, we see Bettany in a power-less world, where laptops are used as doorstops and discarded mobile phones are strewn across the street. Regular readers will know how much I hate pointless flashforwards at the start of films, but this is one of the worst ever — it gives away almost everything that will happen, Another photo with Rebecca Hall inrobbing the entire film of tension and nullifying any sense of surprise, and the movie doesn’t compensate with, say, a feeling of crushing inevitability. The climax in particular becomes a drawn-out exercise in connect the dots: we’ve been shown how this all ends up, now we’re just seeing the minutiae of how it got there. There’s no twist or reveal to speak of, just a wait for it to marry up with what we already know.

Some say Depp is wasted in a role where he cops it in the first act and is basically a computer voice from then on. There are pros and cons to this. From an acting standpoint, Hall and Bettany are really the co-leads; from a storytelling perspective, it’s them plus Depp. It pays off repeatedly to have a proper actor, rather than a glorified extra, as the third pillar of that relationship. Plus, having the film’s sole above-the-title star absent himself so early is an effective move — “he can’t die, he’s the star! …oh, he did.” Etc. As an acting showcase, it doesn’t give Depp much to do, other than reign in the flamboyance that is his go-to these days. Points for appropriate understatedness, then.

It’s left to Hall to carry the weight of their relationship. While he’s alive the pair don’t make for the most convincing “most in love couple ever” you’ll ever see, that’s true, but her emotions and dilemmas after his death and in the years that follow are more affecting. That said, this isn’t a low-budget drama. There’s definitely potential with this concept to make a film like that — one that focuses more firmly on the ethical and emotional effects of recreating someone after death (I think there’s an episode of Black Mirror that does something similar, in fact, but I’ve not seen it). Those considerations are in the mix here, but it’s a $100 million blockbuster too, so it has to allow plenty of time for military machinations and an explosive climax.

TranscendentI guess that’s probably the explanation for Transcendence’s poor reception, in the end: it’s too blockbuster-y for viewers who’d like a dramatic exploration of its central moral and scientific issues, but too lacking in action sequences for those who misguidedly expected an SF-action-thriller. I maintain it’s not slow-paced, especially if you think it’s going to be, but nor does it generate doses of adrenaline on a committee-approved schedule. It’s not all it could have been, but if all you’ve heard is the mainstream drubbing, it’s probably better than you expect.

4 out of 5

Transcendence debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 2:30pm and 8pm.

The Tourist (2010)

2014 #101
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, France & Italy / English | 12 / PG-13

The TouristMuch maligned on its release, I thought The Tourist was actually a decently entertaining light thriller.

Some of the criticisms are valid: stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie do lack chemistry, there are some plot holes and logic leaps, and the tone is muddled (is it a thriller? A romance? A comedy? All of the above but with the wrong balance?)

However, other parts are good fun, and there are solid, entertaining twists to be found in the plot. It may not be a great movie, but taken as a light amusement, it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Legion (2010)

2012 #21
Scott Stewart | 96 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

LegionThe first of two Christian-themed action movies directed by former visual effects man Scott Stewart (this his first feature as director) and starring British thesp Paul Bettany (here he plays a gun-toting angel, next time it’s a warrior monk) — I don’t know if that’s a conscious theological choice of some kind (there’s no Book of Eli-style heavy-handed God-bothering in either film) or just an almighty coincidence. Even if not, the quality of the pair is consistent, for better or worse.

In the first of the Stewart-Bettany diptych, we find that for some reason it’s the end of days, and for some reason there’s a diner in the middle of nowhere, and a deliberately fallen angel turns up to defend the inhabitants of said diner from the celestial forces that are for some reason gathering to kill them. Something like that, anyway.

It doesn’t really matter, it’s all rubbish. It’s penned by writers who think speechmaking equates to character. All of the dialogue is appalling; even Big Lines — just before a heroic death, that kind of thing — are irredeemably bad. It’s performed by actors who aren’t even capable of delivering that tosh. They all overact in one way or another, especially a gurning turn from Dennis Quaid. Later on it aims for some kind of epic fantasy stuff, but it manages to be both underdeveloped and overplayed. The ending shoots for a ‘the story continues’ vibe, though goodness knows where anyone thought the story had to go.

LegionersEven the action sequences not up to much, just guns firing and things exploding in the dark with almost no choreography. As an action movie you might forgive it some of the plot and character points if it could manage that, but it can’t.

Also, there’s a character called Jeep… who’s a mechanic! Oh come on.

There are some scraps of good bits. The beginning is moderately cool, if a bit of a rip from the Terminator franchise. There’s some good creepy villains — to say how or who would ruin some of the film’s rare good bits, should you for some reason decide to watch it. Which you shouldn’t.

Legion is disappointing on pretty much every level. There’s some potential in the basic idea, but it’s not even close to being realised. Even the siege-based rendering of it they’ve gone for feels half baked.

Avoid.

1 out of 5

Legion featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2012, which can be read in full here.