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Review: Dear Wendy

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Wendy isn’t a girl who misses much. She’s well acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand, like a lizard on a window pane. When Dick (Jamie Bell), leader of the Dandies gang, holds her in his arms, and he feels his finger on her trigger, he knows nobody can do him no harm. Not that Dick would ever actually fire his beloved, mind you, apart from target practice — the Dandies, a group of outcast teens living in a derelict mining town, are staunch pacifists, privately fetishizing weapons they never intend to brandish in public. And if that seems absurd and pointless, welcome to the singular worldview of Denmark’s Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville), whose screenplay for Dear Wendy is but the latest installment in his mammoth ongoing project: the deconstruction of American mores, from the blinkered, media-fed perspective of someone who’s never set foot in the U.S.
    For whatever reason, Von Trier chose not to direct this one himself, passing it along to Dogme 95 colleague Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration). Vinterberg is a more sensual and less exacting filmmaker than Von Trier, and he gives the first half of Dear Wendy, detailing the formation of the Dandies and the evolution of their bizarre rituals, a welcome jaunty fizz, downplaying the didacticism and capturing the mischievous exhilaration of kids engaged in mildly subversive role-playing — the N.R.A. as the Calvin & Hobbes clubhouse. (Alison Pill, whose shrill performance in Pieces of April seemed to reflect her own surname, is surprisingly tough and affecting here as the Dandies’ sole female member; the scene in which she proudly exposes her breasts to Dick — not as a sexual come-on, but in giddy celebration of their belated arrival — is oddly poignant.)
    It’s only when the script’s scolding machinations finally kick in that Dear Wendy goes horribly awry. That this social experiment will end in violence is dramatically inevitable; what’s mystifying, and at times unseemly, is the way that Von Trier predicates the Dandies’ implosion on racial stereotypes, with disaster creeping ever closer once the local sheriff (Bill Pullman) insists that Dick look after Sebastian (Danso Gordon), the murderous nephew of Dick’s family’s African-American maid.
   As in his forthcoming, disappointing Dogville sequel, Manderlay, Von Trier has a grasp of race relations most charitably described as “quaint,” and here there’s no nation-building allegory to temper such folly. Dear Lars: Rent some Charles Burnett videos, pronto. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Steal Me
In the latest tale of a small town changed by the arrival of a young eccentric, Jake, a fifteen-year-old klepto searching for his prostitute mother, is taken in by a Jesse McCartney-like cutie, Tucker, and his white-picket Montana family. Through a borrowed Oedipus complex, Jake fantasizes about his adoptive, kind-of-creepy new mother while sleeping with the undersexed neighbor with tight quads. He impresses the father with a newfound work ethic, wows the local boys with his ability to pick locks and jump ignitions, and, in what could have become an aggressive, inexperienced threesome, hooks Tucker up with his free-spirited crush Lilly Rose, played by the independently sexy Paz de la Huerta.
   Predictably, though, Jake can’t kick his thieving ways or his reputation despite admirable efforts and superhero-like voice-overs (“It’s called . . . breaking and entering”). Falling captive to multiple indie clichés, Steal Me is redeemed only by de la Huerta’s sensuality. — David Diehl
Date DVD #51: The Greta Garbo Signature Collection
As you prepare for a date, it’s worth remembering that cinema’s truest stars — Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich — were never just flirts.
    “I don’t want to be a silly temptress,” Garbo said once. “I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures.”
    Garbo did get all dolled up and tempt men in pictures, but she did much more. The full range of her iconic talent has been restored in the excellent Greta Garbo Signature Collection, which gathers most of the major movies she made before ageist Hollywood so cruelly dumped her. This collection includes Anna Christie, Mata Hari, Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Camille, Ninotchka, and, of course, Anna Karenina. The collection illustrates how her name became shorthand for grace and powerful beauty.
    In the transition from silents to sound cinema, many major starlets lost their gigs as roles came to demand more full-bodied and, obviously, full-throated performances. But Garbo, a Swedish immigrant, confidently learned as fast as she could — easing into English with the accented lead in Eugene O’Neill’s craggy drama Anna Christie, then quickly settling into historical romances, effortlessly infusing her parts with strength and intelligence just as impressive as her legendary cheekbones. She could be a temptress, sure, but there was nothing silly about her. Her career was the triumph of a woman who knew she was never just another pretty face. — Logan Hill

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