movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


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Once upon a time (back in 1995) in the faraway land of Denmark, two headstrong lads decided to rescue world audiences from bourgeois cinema. Our heroes, Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, vowed to shoot character-driven movies under a "vow of chastity." They concocted a list of cinematic no-nos, forswearing such "decadent" production devices as artificial light and sound. Only hand-held cameras would be permitted. No props, no genre conventions. No director's credit.

The now-notorious "Dogma 95" tenets have hatched such critically-acclaimed works as Vinterberg's Celebration and Von Trier's Idiots. Last year, Harmony Korine (of Kids fame) made Julien Donkey-Boy according to dogmatic principles, minus the group's seal of approval. At first, their self-imposed creed sounds like a noble venture. Part of their manifesto reads, "My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings." That's all well and good…until we stumble across that word: "force," which smacks of desperation. So do the Dogma films.

This holy asceticism pretends to deflate the vanity involved in making state-of-the-art blockbusters. But sub-budget Dogma directors have more in common with James Cameron than Jean-Luc Godard. When a gimmicky movie nudges an audience's awareness of filmmaking techniques (with or without computer-generated flying saucers), it's not telling a story. It becomes the story.

In erasing any remains of authorship, the Dogma dictators have launched a type of "anti-auteur theory." The camera doesn't search for beauty. It finds no metaphorical significance in the enduring sameness of candlelight. It simply records the actors (with all their theatricality), forsaking the frenzied aesthetics of documentaries or cinema-verite. In their mission to smother individual style, they create films devoid of personality.

The latest Dogma effort, Mifune, is the most self-conscious to date. It takes its name from a legendary Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, who starred in many Akira Kurosawa films, including the classic Seven Samurai. Mifune passed away during the movie's production, so director Kragh-Jacobsen devised a means of honoring his memory: the movie's protagonist dresses as a Samurai to entertain his mentally-challenged brother.

Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) is a buttoned-down businessman from Copenhagen. Like all the inhabitants of Mifune, he's little more than a two-dimensional sketch (what's commonly called a stock-character). Kresten tools around in a BMW, blabbing on his cell phone, looking very professional, doing whatever he does. He's got a dim-witted trophy wife (Sofie Gråbøl) who has no clue about his background, which resembles a John Steinbeck novel. On the ragged island of Lolland lies his family's rotting farmhouse--which contains his newly-deceased dad--bedecked with weeds. Under the table cowers Rud (Jesper Asholt), Kresten's UFO-obsessed brother, who retains an eight-year-old's mentality. Next arrives Liva (Iben Hjejle), a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. Kresten tires to hire her to govern the swampy household. She's on the run, of course. A psychopathic telephone prankster and a nasty pimp have her frazzled, along with her cheeky brother, Bjarke (Emil Tarding), a boarding-school drop-out.

"Even cretinous people can be religious," says a local clergyman of Rud, the holy fool. Mifune wants us to believe the same of its eccentric family. Its moral lessons revolve around the usual warm-hearted allegories--love and friendship over worldly goods. This holds more in common with Hollywood "bourgeois" correlatives than philosophical musings. It might've worked, if not for the weak performances. We're supposed to care about Rud, who looks in constant danger of toppling over. He's described as a "childlike creature," and like most movie children, he's meant to appear wise. Asholt works too hard at playing mentally-challenged. He isn't believable, despite his aggressive stammering. Liva, with her fierce grin, twitchless and composed, is another genre convention, the happy hooker. Kresten's glottal sputterings render him mock-hysterical. He hardly seems capable of running the house, much less his business.

What occurs between them is utterly predictable. The camera jostles around in the dimness, lending profoundness to shadowy profiles. A saxophone grunts through a love song. A couple waltzes their way toward happily-ever-after. It's the stuff that movies are made of…with or without hand-held cameras.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]