Archive for October 2000

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

October 27, 2000

For all its flaws — and there are many — Book of Shadows, the quickie sequel to 1999’s runaway indie hit The Blair Witch Project, has one key element in common with its predecessor: the gut-wrenching horror of people arguing with each other, on and on, pointlessly. (In my more fanciful moments, I suspect that the real secret of the first Blair Witch‘s success was that it was an ooh-spooky version of The Jerry Springer Show, all yammering confrontation without meaning.) This sequel, which pretends the first Blair Witch was a fiction film that could have been based in fact, follows five twentysomethings into the barren woods of Burkittsville, where they mysteriously lose several hours of their lives. They wake up the next morning remembering nothing, though they know something has happened; the video cameras positioned all around their camp have caught teasing glimpses of this something, but meanwhile the quintet occupy a lot of screen time quarreling over what the footage means.

Not much, as it turns out. Book of Shadows is meant to be a metaphysical, guess-what’s-real head game for the age of the Avid, but in essence it’s just a feature-length retread of the famously nagging final shot of the first Blair Witch. A movie can lap-dance you with the unknown for only so long before it eventually has to come across; the sequel does, but it’s less satisfying than dispiriting. The movie works up to a big revelation that doesn’t surprise anyone; did the filmmakers lose sight of their own audience, which is hip enough to catch on?

The group of five — tour guide Jeffrey Donovan, indignant Wiccan Erica Leerhsen, sneering goth chick Kim Director, and troubled couple Tristan Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner (who are working on a book about the Blair Witch legend) — head into the bleak woods, hoping to catch traces of something, if indeed there is something. One good idea thrown away in Book of Shadows is that few people really take the Blair Witch thing all that seriously; the site of the famous murders is a kitschy tourist trap, luring curiosity seekers from all over the world (as the actual shooting locations of the original movie did). For a while, Book of Shadows seems interested in deconstructing all the myth and hype that gathered around The Blair Witch Project and then starting fresh. It goes stale fast, though.

After the black-out, during which all the camera equipment is destroyed but the tapes are mysteriously deposited in the same spot where Heather’s tapes were reportedly found, the group heads back to Jeffrey’s isolated hang-out in the woods, where he sells Blair Witch memorabilia and maintains a state-of-the-art video studio with stolen equipment. Everyone sits down to watch the tapes, which reveal, little by little, what happened that night. Individually, they also have weird dreams and visions that seem connected to the long-ago Blair Witch murders. After a while the inevitable finger-pointing begins. Something strange happened, and the Wiccan is responsible! No, wait, it’s the goth chick! No, obviously it’s the tour guide!

This gets old as quickly as you’d expect (at least the quarreling over the lost map in the first Blair Witch didn’t feel quite so much like a bad Twilight Zone episode). The director, Joe Berlinger (who cowrote the script with Dick Beebe, writer of 1999’s House on Haunted Hill remake, which had similar freak-out scenes), comes from documentaries — brilliant ones, actually, the best-known being the Paradise Lost films he co-directed. Here he seems to be trying something so deep-dish with a story so shallow that the depth dries out. Berlinger appears to be saying that reality as experienced by the characters (and as captured by Berlinger’s film camera) is false, and that the true reality can only be seen on the unforgiving medium of video. He blurts this out when he has a character say something like “Film lies; video is truth.” Yet when we finally see the videos in their full Dionysian horror (or what passes for it), we don’t know why it’s the truth. Once again, that devilish unseen Blair Witch is messing around with people’s heads. She sure seems to like to pick on wannabe documentary filmmakers, though; it’s as if she wanted to work her evil only on those in a position to record her witchery. I’d say you have nothing to worry about in the woods of Burkittsville as long as you don’t have a camcorder with you.

I am far from a fan of the first Blair Witch, which turned out, rather embarrassingly for its admirers, to have been ripped off from the far better shot-on-video horror project The Last Broadcast. And even before that, movies like Cannibal Holocaust (from 1978, mind you) dealt with the “group of documentary filmmakers met their doom and here’s their footage” premise. But at least Blair Witch had an air of otherworldly strangeness about it; the hand-held camera pulled you into the position of being with the three protagonists (whether you wanted to be with these three whiners was another story). Book of Shadows has no such you-are-there hook; we’re just observers here, and what we observe is the usual hack and slash, served to us in grisly flashes. After a while, the movie becomes ugly and unpleasant, and finally just irritating. The arguing goes on and on, until you just want someone to die so you can go home already. If Joe Berlinger wanted to break into narrative filmmaking, he should’ve picked a film with a narrative.

Bedazzled (2000)

October 20, 2000

A movie actor as ridiculously perfect-looking as Brendan Fraser might be easy for male critics to resent if not for two things: He’s genuinely smart (any interview with him reveals his articulate intelligence), and he’s willing and eager to make himself look like a complete nerd. Fraser has a healthy sense of humor about himself, as he demonstrated in Dudley Do-Right and 1999’s flashy remake of The Mummy, and in another remake — Bedazzled, starring Fraser as a dork who sells his soul to the devil — he pulls out all the stops.

Fraser begins as the hapless Elliott Richards, a desperately lonely cubicle drone whose hearty stabs at connecting with anyone usually get the opposite result. Elliott’s dream is to win the heart of beautiful coworker Allison (Frances O’Connor), who knows he exists when he’s standing in front of her, but then quickly forgets afterward. Elliott makes the mistake of muttering that he’d give anything to have her love; immediately, announced by Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing,” a helpful figure enters Elliott’s life — Satan herself, in the form of Elizabeth Hurley.

Satan offers Elliott seven wishes in exchange for his soul (“You’ll never miss it,” she insists). Unsurprisingly, the fair Allison figures prominently in all of Elliott’s wishes, which usually backfire because Elliott’s requests leave a lot of margin for Satanic embellishment. When Elliott asks to be rich and powerful, he finds himself retooled as a Colombian drug dealer (“I can speak Spanish!” says Elliott gleefully, in Spanish). When that doesn’t work out, Elliott asks to be the world’s most sensitive man, or a really big and athletic man, or a really sophisticated and witty man, or the President — all with farcical results that never achieve the basic goal (Allison).

Bedazzled was directed by Harold Ramis (Multiplicity, Analyze This) from a script he worked on with Larry Gelbart and Peter Tolan; it’s a glancing remake of the Dudley Moore/Peter Cook cult comedy from 1967. In and of itself, this Bedazzled is decent enough entertainment as written, though many will regret the movie’s eleventh-hour detour into pieties; it turns out, naturally, that Elliott must learn to be himself if he hopes to find love. (It’s a bit more complex than that, as Ramis knew when he made Groundhog Day.)

Brendan Fraser, though, redeems just about everything. My favorite of his creations here was the over-sensitive Elliott, who can’t stop weeping at the beauty of a sunset (“When is that sun going to set?” he finally wails). Second place goes to Elliott the sweaty, IQ-challenged basketball star, who’s challenged in other areas as well (the screenwriters have given him pitch-perfect sports clichés to spout to the cameras after a triumph on the courts). I also enjoyed Elliott as an urban sophisto, though this segment ends on a somewhat homophobic note. Others may object to Elliott as a Latino drug lord, though Fraser plays it with such exuberance that it comes across as more an homage than a stereotype — he reminded me of Alfonso Arau as the cheerful paperback-romance fan in Romancing the Stone.

As for Elizabeth Hurley, she’s not quite an actress; her diabolical shtick, at best, is a notch or two below Elvira, and without Cassandra Petersen’s self-aware, self-satirizing pulchritude. She gets a gently teasing rapport going with Fraser, though; late in the game, when he refers to her as his “best friend,” it doesn’t sound totally stupid. Hurley keeps herself amused throughout — she seems to be tickling her dialogue on its tummy. Bedazzled lacks the comic ingenuity of Harold Ramis’ best previous comedies, but it’s good fluff. You won’t be dazzled, but you’ll be entertained.

Bamboozled

October 20, 2000

For about the first hour of Spike Lee’s ballsy satire Bamboozled, I couldn’t understand why so many critics had slammed it. It seemed fresh and biting — maybe too fresh and biting for some people? Somewhat smugly, I decided that the majority of critics just didn’t get it, couldn’t deal with it, whatever. Then, around the 90-minute mark, the movie started to go bad. And that isn’t even the bad news. The bad news is that there’s another 46 minutes to go — plenty of time for it to get even worse. Which it does.

In Bamboozled, Spike Lee falls into the same trap that Oliver Stone did with Natural Born Killers: he makes a hammer-headed media satire, wielding a baseball bat where a scalpel would do more damage, and reiterates the same unsurprising points over and over. Like Stone, Lee falls on his ass when he tries to be funny. He’s not a natural at comedy, even though many of his films do have hilarious moments; his humor tends to arise organically out of characters, particularly in the blinkered or self-righteous ways they express themselves, and there is some riotous character comedy in Bamboozled. Yet it all eventually gets buried under Lee’s ambitions and preaching: This is an important movie, and around about that 90-minute equator you can just about feel the click as Lee shifts into important-movie mode. What should have been a fast, scalding hour and a half sprawls out to two hours and sixteen minutes, becoming, by the end, a flabby and melodramatic morality play.

Lee is annoyed (and saddened) that the only black-themed shows on television are crude comedies — the millennial equivalents of minstrel shows. Bamboozled has flowered out of his anger, yet it feels less angry than, well, amateurish — a Saturday Night Live sketch done at laborious length. Lee’s premise glistens with possibility. Self-hating TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) can’t get any of his pilots produced on his network, CNS. His boss, the loutish Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), browbeats Pierre for not “keeping it real” — for not writing “black” enough. Rapaport, easily the funniest thing in the movie, plays this obnoxious clown so exuberantly — pumping his fist in appreciation of his own tastelessness — that he single-handedly achieves Lee’s stated goal of comedy that you know you shouldn’t laugh at but can’t help laughing at. In his early scenes, at least, Rapaport takes a standard Spike Lee stereotype (the clueless white guy marooned in ignorance) and blasts it through the roof. (It’s a pretty good joke that Rapaport is one of the “great Negroe actors” listed on the movie’s poster.)

Racking his brain to devise a hip, cutting-edge show, Pierre finally hits upon the perfect idea. He’s looking to get fired anyway, so he develops the idea of a new, real minstrel show — Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, which will star two homeless guys of his acquaintance, talented dancer Manray (played by noted dancer/choreographer Savion Glover) and sidekick Womack (Tommy Davidson). Renamed Mantan and Sleep ‘n’ Eat, respectively, the pair are hired for the show by an enthusiastic Dunwitty, who eagerly buys Pierre’s pitch. Dunwitty doesn’t realize, of course, that Pierre intends the show as an ironic commentary on racist stereotypes, a show so blatantly offensive that it functions as a challenge to the network; Pierre tosses in everything from watermelons to blackface, and Dunwitty and the network eat it up.

Soon, so does America. After a bizarre first performance that plays to a sea of befuddled faces in a silent studio audience, Mantan eventually catches on; people start wearing blackface and identifying themselves as “niggers.” In other words, the show Pierre has ironically created out of contempt for popular taste backfires on him, and he has to watch as it snowballs into a huge success, and then live it down. Lee makes incisive points about the price of selling out, the appropriation of black culture, the way popular media turns everything into fodder. For a while, the movie seems to be playing in the same ballpark as Network. Pierre has an assistant, Sloane (Jada Pinkett Smith), whose clownish brother Big Black Africa (Mos Def) hangs with a faux-militant posse calling themselves the Mau Maus; they, too, want to get on television. But as Mantan picks up steam, they look on in disgust, not really recognizing that they, with their gangsta pose and Black Panther Lite pretensions, embody stereotypes almost as grotesque as the blackface Mantan and Sleep ‘n’ Eat.

For a long while, Lee has fun tossing darts; you can feel him working out some of his frustration over the crap you used to see on UPN. But then, rather abruptly, the movie goes to hell. It begins by turning moralistic. Pierre starts suffering and even hallucinating (maybe) because his guilt and shame over his success are rotting him inside. Damon Wayans, who brings a clipped sense of play to his early scenes as the pompous Pierre with his piss-elegant accent and fake name, starts to falter in his later scenes of anguish. Pointlessly, the question of whether Sloane slept with Pierre to get her job becomes an issue because Manray, just as pointlessly, has developed feelings for her. Manray and Womack have a falling out, as do Pierre and Sloane in the first of many awful scenes. Even Dunwitty stops being funny and becomes a braying annoyance. Meanwhile, the Mau Maus — who had seemed like harmless goofballs — start plotting to kidnap Manray and murder him on a live cybercast. What? Where’d that come from?

It was a mistake, I think, for Lee to take such a sharp left turn into melodrama. Bamboozled ends up feeling just as conventional as any Hollywood drama made for grandmothers. The satire becomes less and less focused; when Pierre accepts an award for the show from presenter Matthew Modine, he first compliments Modine on his fine work in Rumble Fish and Wild Things (confusing him with Matt Dillon, unhilariously), then attempts to give his award to Modine, á la Ving Rhames at the Emmys forcing Jack Lemmon to take his trophy. The scene isn’t funny, just mortifying (and will make no sense in twenty years — does anyone even remember the Ving Rhames incident now, only five years after Bamboozled?). So is Mantan itself, though it seems meant to be funny in spite of itself — you’re supposed to thrill to Savion Glover’s moves and laugh at Tommy Davidson’s antics while at the same time being appalled at the context. It doesn’t work out that way; even Glover’s quicksilver tapping seems off, because at that point you’re watching Savion Glover, an artist in his own right, trapped in another artist’s off-kilter conception. It would be nice to say that Glover rises above his blackface and “coon” costumes and achieves dignity through dance, but the heaviness of the atmosphere drags him down.

Lee throws all this racist iconography — the cotton, the watermelons, the montages of old movie clips and cartoons and tar-baby toys and posters — onto the screen, but what’s his point? That we haven’t progressed much past the overt racism of the past? In Natural Born Killers, I didn’t buy the notion that America would idolize Mickey and Mallory (more likely, America would be scared shitless of them). Similarly, in Bamboozled I don’t really buy the idea that blackface and ancient racist stereotypes could become such a hit in America; even if Lee is using it as a reductio ad absurdum in theory, in practice and at such length it strains credulity (another reason why the movie needed to be shorter). And one could reasonably question why some of the black comedy shows deserve scorn; after all, comedy is comedy, not public relations, and who would argue that the white people in a Farrelly brothers movie or an Adam Sandler movie stand for all white people? True, most of the shuck and jive stuff of the past played a sizable role in dehumanizing blacks, but if a black performer today just wants to make people laugh, what’s he or she supposed to do? Check with Spike Lee first to make sure his or her act is sufficiently dignified? Such criticism of modern-day “minstrel shows,” while sometimes valid, sounds a little odd coming from Spike Lee, whose character Mars Blackmon in his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It (as well as in several Nike commercials) was, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty much a clown.

Bamboozled is a mess — or turns into a mess, anyway — and it’s a particularly painful mess, because it begins so well and has such promise. I didn’t hate it — it didn’t make me angry, as Lee’s Jungle Fever did — but I came away from it numbed into indifference, a fatal response to what aims so strenuously to be corrosive satire. Lee gets locked into a double-tragic finale, and it feels completely unearned and synthetic. Wouldn’t the satire be bolder if the show were a huge success and everyone involved were happy with it, and then, as always happens, Mantan started losing popularity and was eventually bumped aside in favor of an even more offensive show (possibly produced by the Mau Maus)? Instead, Pierre and Manray become martyrs for the entertainment of the masses and God knows what else. But really it’s the movie that gets martyred. Spike Lee may have gotten bamboozled by his own madly conflicting ambitions. As a presence and as a talent, he may be too intimidating; he needs, and sometimes sorely lacks, a few people in his circle who will be honest with him when his ideas just don’t cohere.

Pay It Forward

October 20, 2000

pay-it-forwardThe rules of Pay It Forward, the do-gooder plan outlined in the mawkish film of the same title, are simple: You do a big favor for someone, and that someone turns around and does favors for three other people, each of whom will do favors for three other people, and so on. I will now do you a big favor by telling you how lame Pay It Forward is. If you go forth and tell three other people how lame it is, my job will be done, and imagine how much better off the world will be.

Well, maybe not. But maybe if the word spreads and an anti-Pay It Forward movement starts up, movies like this won’t continue to be made. (Maybe.) The movie, directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) from a script by Leslie Dixon, is certainly spring-loaded for Oscars: We have two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, Oscar winner Helen Hunt, and Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment (the haunted boy in The Sixth Sense), and boy, let me tell you, they just act their asses off; I mean, there’s some serious acting going on here. Everyone gets at least one Big Scene; Spacey and Hunt, by my count, get about four apiece, and little Haley isn’t far behind. How odd that all these Big Scenes should add up to such a paltry movie.

Seventh-grader Trevor McKinney (Osment) comes up with “Pay It Forward” in answer to a challenge by his social-studies teacher, Mr. Simonet (Spacey), to devise an idea that will change the world. Trevor is one of those noble suffering kids you only meet in movies; he has an alcoholic mom (Hunt) and an absent father (and, as played by the non-actor Jon Bon Jovi, he should’ve stayed absent). Regardless, Trevor is selfless enough to try to help others, including a homeless junkie (Jim Caviezel) as well as his mom and teacher, for whom he plays Cupid.

Trevor’s Twelve Stations of the Cross are interrupted every now and then so that we can follow a reporter (Jay Mohr, who belongs in sharper stuff than this) who’s trying to track down the origin of “Pay It Forward.” Trevor’s idea, you see, has become a movement — its fingers reach from Trevor’s Las Vegas home all the way to San Francisco. People have been paying it forward, one of whom, a bag lady living out of her car (Angie Dickinson!), turns out, in a nonsensical surprise, to be Hunt’s estranged mom. Hold on, back up. Trevor thinks nothing of inviting a homeless junkie into his house to eat Cap’n Crunch and sleep in the garage, but he doesn’t think to say “Hey Grandma, come home with me and have some cereal”?

Spacey manages to rescue some of his scenes, at least the ones that don’t force him to drop the Kevin Spacey cool we know and love; but what happened to Helen Hunt? She’s trying way too hard here to be the next Meryl Streep, always tensed up, and I was shocked to see this formerly subtle comedian chugging a bottle of whiskey during her relapse scenes as if acting in one of those Very Special TV movies she transcended 20 years ago. (Hell, she was better in the 1982 TV biopic Quarterback Princess than she is here. The only time she really relaxes here is when acting opposite Kathleen Wilhoite, who plays her friend in recovery — and who played her friend in Quarterback Princess. It’s a cool little reunion for those who saw the TV movie.) Osment is as appealing as he was in The Sixth Sense, and that’s the problem — he’s appealing in almost the same quiet, smart-little-kid way; the only scene I fully enjoyed involving all three fine actors was a quick scene in which teacher, mother, and excitable boy are sitting around (or, in Trevor’s case, jumping around) watching wrestling on TV.

In all, Pay It Forward is the stickiest pile of moosh since Patch Adams, and it has a comparable tragic ending that invalidates the film’s message. Someone attempts to carry out Trevor’s mission, and it backfires; we’re left thinking, “Okay, if that’s what happens when you try to help, why try to help?” Well, because if you fall in the line of charity, your face gets on TV, and lots of sobbing people congregate outside your house holding candles. The traffic of cars heading to the mass mourning seems to be backed up for miles; all I could think about during this allegedly heart-rending coda was how much it would suck if someone were having a heart attack or their house were on fire, and the ambulance or fire engine were stuck in that traffic. It’s a good thing I didn’t eat a big meal before seeing the movie, because the ending would’ve been enough to make me pay it forward.

The Contender

October 13, 2000

Critics can’t help having a bias against one thing or another. I, for example, find left-leaning entertainment hard to swallow — not because I’m a Republican, but quite the opposite: As a registered Democrat and moderate liberal, I resent movies that congratulate me for voting “correctly.” At the movies, I want to be entertained, stimulated, provoked, challenged; I don’t want my ass kissed. Since Hollywood is by and large Democrat, movies that argue intelligently and forcefully for a view closer to the right are in drastically short supply.

The Contender is unmistakably pro-Dem and anti-Rep. When the lead Democratic characters are played by the amiable Jeff Bridges and the dignified Joan Allen, and when the lead Republican slithers onto the screen in the form of veteran snake Gary Oldman in the ugliest balding-head wig since Bill Murray in Kingpin, there’s no doubt which side the movie is on. In a way, the movie is to be valued, I suppose, for taking a side — for not being wishy-washy — and Roger Ebert praised it in his review for being explicit about the political parties involved (since so many “political” movies keep it cautiously vague). Still, I wonder if Ebert would’ve enjoyed the film as much if good ol’ Jeff and noble Joan played right-wingers.

Bridges plays the President of the United States, whose Vice President died three weeks ago; casting about for a replacement, he and his staff settle on Senator Laine Hanson (Allen), a reformed Republican who once voted for President Clinton’s impeachment but now voices her belief in pro-choice, separation of church and state, and stringent laws against the sales of guns and tobacco. Hanson’s route to the Vice-Presidency hits a bump when some alleged evidence surfaces of her sexual misadventures in college — bluntly, her participation in a frat orgy.

Hanson stonewalls her interrogators, including the rodent-like Rep. Shelly Runyon (Oldman), at every turn; she insists, even to those who are trying to help her, that what she did or did not do as a college girl is nobody’s business but her own. This is true, but it doesn’t get more true through sheer repetition; writer-director Rod Lurie jackhammers the message into our skulls again and again, as if going after a political nominee for past foibles were a uniquely Republican trait. Democrats, I must point out, are equally skilled at that sort of mud-slinging; one of the movie’s better, more candid exchanges comes when Hanson, refusing to use a bit of evidence against Runyon, says “We’re better than that,” and presidential adviser Sam Elliott (in a wise, sturdy performance) intones “No, we’re not better than that.”

Jeff Bridges comes through for us; he plays his President as a man who knows he’s the top dog in any room and is secure in that knowledge. In short, he has fun – something in short supply elsewhere in the film. Gary Oldman, clenched in righteous disgust, hasn’t been given the material he needs to make Runyon more than a straw man (Oldman has claimed, fairly bitterly and probably with some justification, that cuts were made to the film to make it more leftist and his character less complex). Joan Allen has been great before and will be great again; here she’s playing a glass statuette of stoic nobility, and it occurred to me that I was watching many people spend a lot of time and tax dollars arguing over a cipher.

Towards the finish line, The Contender weaves back and forth, tying itself into unproductive dramatic knots to send the audience home happy — or at least the part of the audience conditioned to embrace pat Hollywood endings. Everyone gets a speech, backed by swelling listen-to-this-important-message music — even Gary Oldman gets a brief one, in the movie’s wan stab at bipartisanship. You may not go home happy, though, if you believe in the separation of church and cinema. The Contender thumps its Democratic Bible hard enough to put Jonathan Edwards to shame. Early on, a character remarks that schools shouldn’t talk about Jesus: “They’re supposed to teach, not preach.” The Contender preaches, all right, but what does it teach? “A woman shouldn’t be held to a double standard”? “Politics can be corrupt and self-serving”? “The sun produces light and heat”? Spare me.

Dancer in the Dark

October 6, 2000

Dancer in the Dark is the year’s love-it-or-loathe-it film (and I do mean loathe — some critics have downright spit on it). Count me, if you must put it this way, among the suckers who fell for it. A polarizing film by the Danish auteur Lars von Trier, whose 1996 Breaking the Waves similarly split moviegoers, Dancer in the Dark dares to be a dark-tinged musical with swooning flights of fantasy and vertiginous plunges into despair. Some may find this mixture unpalatable and manipulative; I find it intoxicating, a reminder of what movies can do better than any other medium. The movie is a tribute to the raw power of Hollywood melodrama and the bliss of Hollywood musicals, neither of which has been seen much in such impassioned, undiluted form in these heavily ironic times.

Von Trier introduced Emily Watson to the global audience in Breaking the Waves; here, he introduces Björk — the Icelandic pop singer who needs no intro to music buffs — to the big screen. Originally tapped by von Trier only to write and compose the film’s songs, Björk wound up playing the heroine, Selma Jezkova, a Czechoslovakian factory worker whose congenital eye disorder will soon render her blind. Selma lives in squalor with her young son Gene (Vladica Kostic), who will lose his sight eventually unless Selma works hard enough to pay for his surgery.

That’s the set-up, and that’s about all I’m going to reveal — not that anyone well-fed on centuries of melodrama couldn’t forecast most of the film’s emotional storms. But as storms go, Dancer in the Dark is about as perfect as we’re likely to get this year. Like the bedridden hero of The Singing Detective, Selma uses her memories of Hollywood musicals (which she cherishes) as an escape hatch — from the tedium of her job and, later, from the nightmare her life has become.

Von Trier’s cinematographer Robby Müller shoots everything with drab lighting and a hand-held camera that never met a whip-pan it didn’t like — until von Trier takes us into Selma’s head, at which point the film blushes and blossoms into vibrant color as the characters break into song and dance. Then it’s back to gray reality again. As the film chases down its climax, it flips back and forth between the styles much more often, indicating Selma’s greater need for escape.

The movie boasts one of the more oddball ensembles in recent memory — Catherine Deneuve as Selma’s concerned co-worker (who rehearses with her in an after-hours local production of The Sound of Music); David Morse as a financially strapped policeman and Cara Seymour (the ill-fated prostitute “Christie” in American Psycho) as his shopaholic wife; Peter Stormare (the monosyllabic brute in Fargo) in a rare nice-guy turn as a factory worker who’s sweet on Selma; even von Trier mainstays Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier in small roles. But everyone here, as out-of-place as they seem, also seems inexplicably right, and that begins with the casting of Björk, who took the Best Actress prize at Cannes (the film itself won the Palme d’Or).

This isn’t a diva vanity project á la Madonna in Evita. Björk is in great voice, which is a bit like saying that rain is wet; but the surprise here is how deeply and fully she gives herself to Selma’s extremes of emotion. Reportedly her relationship with von Trier became very strained during filming, and my guess is that he forced her to go where she would rather not have gone. I can only speak as a selfish moviegoer and say that whatever psychic turmoil Björk endured has translated into a star performance alternately radiant and lacerating, sometimes both at once.

Is Dancer in the Dark an ironic parody of musicals or a banal recap of them? Neither tag rings a bell with me. Even without the musical numbers, von Trier has given us a compelling story with original characters. David Morse’s cop, for instance, is set up as the villain of the piece, but he’s about the nicest and most pitiable villain you could imagine. A female prison guard near the end (soulfully played by Siobhan Fallon, a Saturday Night Live veteran) isn’t the usual butch meanie, but a woman whose heart goes out to Selma in her time of trauma. Selma’s son, despite her devoting her life to him, barely even notices her most of the time — he’s a realistically self-absorbed kid. The story consistently rubs against the grain of your expectations. Mingled with the drizzly realism are some of the most dazzling musical numbers in years — and the happier Selma looks in these numbers, the sadder the movie gets as it goes on. Dancer in the Dark is a true workout, an experience whose sights and sounds will needle you for days whether you like it or not. Fortunately, I loved it.


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