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"Not one of us were in doubt about the most important thing of all, the reason why our partners could only be fired in the darkness of the old mine, and could never be exposed to full light, and thereby woken up. Because once awoken, nothing could stop them from following in their true nature and killing."
DVD ReviewYou'd expect two well-respected Danish filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg to craft a message movie with a more potent concept at its core than "guns are bad, but also fascinating," but that's about all you're going to get from Dear Wendy, a movie about a group of teenage pacifists obsessed with antique firearms, written by the former, directed by the latter, and loaded with heaps of pretension and pomposity. This is the worst kind of cinematic experience, a film that's well made and well acted that thinks it's a whole lot smarter than it is.
The setting is a small mining town in America, but the movie was filmed on sets in Denmark and may as well take place on Mars. The hero is Dick (Jamie Bell), a teen who is too delicate and sensitive to work underground. He tells his story via tedious, wall-to-wall expository narration, more ponderous blather than an entire season of Mary Alice on Desperate Housewives. He's babied by his maid Clarabelle (Novella Nelson), one of only two black characters in the entire movie (but that's OK, because the other one is a criminal), but finds his own sense of self when he purchases a toy gun that turns out to be a real antique dueling pistol. He improbably meets fellow gun nut Stevie (Mark Webber), who carries his own WWI-era piece, and the two agree that, though they are pacifists, guns are something worth learning about. They construct a firing range in an abandoned mine shaft and see their lives change thanks to the confidence carrying guns gives them.
Dick and Stevie soon recruit a bunch of other local losers, including flat-chested shop girl Susan (Alison Pill) and brothers Huey (Chris Owen), a cripple, and Freddie (Michael Angarano), who for some reason gets beaten up because his brother needs leg braces. Each finds his own special weapon, but they vow never to use them except for target practice in the mines, because, they all agree, guns are evil and must kill if you show them to anyone. They dub themselves the Dandies, and proceed to learn everything there is to know about guns, from how to shoot and clean them to what happens to the body when a person is shot.
The story is pretty bizarre, but if you don't buy this weird club, you certainly won't be able to handle what comes next. Vinterberg and Von Trier do the audience no favors, though—perhaps there's a kernel of a good idea here, but it's impossible to tell, because the screenplay sucks from it any sense of dramatic weight by forcing the characters to act like they are all borderline retarded. Dick and his friends are in their late teens, but they act like a bunch of six-year-olds in a cardboard box fort, pretending they are married to, and writing poems about, their guns, which have names like Badsteel and Lee and Grant and, of course, Wendy. They make up their own archaic language and decide to dress up in foppish thrift store finery and stage elaborate gun parades through the town square. They're begging to be shot, if you ask me.
All goes well until Sebastian (Danso Gordon) shows up. He's black, and therefore a troublemaker, familiar with guns because he has used one to kill a person. For some reason, the local sheriff (Bill Pullman) assigns Dick to be Sebastian's pseudo-parole officer. Once he gets a load of their operation, Sebastian, quite justifiably, thinks the Dandies are all nuts, but he's just so dang mesmerized by guns, he joins up himself. Unfortunately, he has his eye on Dick's own Wendy. Problems ensue.
The movie has more on its mind. The filmmakers want to comment on how a culture of fear can lead to a state of violence, and they do this by... having people say they are afraid, and then acting violent because of it. Clarabelle, for instance, goes from lovable old granny to a doddering Alzheimer's patient terrified of phantom hoodlums. A local shopkeeper refuses to work at his register because he believes his one-street town is teeming with gangs (probably because he saw that one black kid walk by). The film's ludicrous climax, which takes place as the Dandies escort an old woman two blocks down the street to visit a relative, is perhaps one of the dumbest payoffs in movie history, if only because the movie is obviously reaching for some grand statement.
Von Trier is often criticized for making movies that are anti-American despite the fact that he has never traveled to the United States. But my problems with Dear Wendy have nothing to do with the fact that he seems to think we are all simple-minded backwoods hicks with itchy trigger fingers. It's that his screenplay says absolutely nothing, and is boring to boot, without one moment of believable dialogue or character interaction. All of his films have a sense of unreality to them, but I accepted the melodrama in, say, Dancer in the Dark because I felt intimately connected to the characters. Dear Wendy is so artificial, and so ill conceived, it's impossible to care.
Vinterberg gets off with a warning, though, because the movie has its own style, sometimes elegant, dusty photography and some interesting, if unnecessary stylistic flourishes (they must not have C.S.I. in Denmark, though, considering how much he loves the old "X-ray view of a gunshot wound" effect). The cast, led by Jamie Bell (who is quickly becoming one of the most interesting young actors working today), is very strong, considering what they have to work with.
It's obvious there are too many firearms in the world, and I'm all for a movie that can make that point intelligently (Andrew Niccol's Lord of War did a pretty good job of it). Von Trier and Vinterberg's kids-with-guns fairy tale isn't that film. If nothing else, they prove, in the wrong hands, a camera can be almost as deadly as a handgun.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: D+
Image Transfer Review: Presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer, Dear Wendy will play with small black bars on the left and right sides on a widescreen TV (though on mine, they were completely obscured by overscan). Picture quality is fair. Colors look OK, but detail is lost in some darker scenes, which have a digital, grainy look. I also noted occasional digital artifacting throughout.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: For some reason, Dear Wendy is presented only in stereo (very odd for a new film, even a low-budget production), and in that regard, it's a decent enough presentation. Dialogue is clear and gunshots and other sound effects, though a bit thin, perhaps, are presented with decent stereo separation. But really, this should be at the very least a 2.0 mix, if only to fill out the soundtrack, filled with songs from The Zombies.
Audio Transfer Grade: C
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring Happy Hour, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, Reel Paradise, Unknown White Male, The Intruder.
4 Deleted Scenes
1 Alternate Endings
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by director Thomas Vinterberg, director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle; cast and crew
Packaging: Keep Case
Extras Review: Dear Wendy includes some nice bonus features, and while they certainly didn't change my opinion on the film, I did find them perhaps more interesting due to the attempt at a controversial story.
Director Thomas Vinterberg and writer Lars Von Trier expound upon the meaning of the movie in a 16-minute interview that will seem profound to those who like the film and utterly pretentious to everyone else. Bizarrely, Vinterberg talks about trying to add "realism" to Von Trier's screenplay, going so far as to say, "in a movie where a man falls in love with a pistol... it only gets interesting if you feel this could actually happen." It's like he's telling me why I didn't like the movie. Thanks, Tommy! Also, for two pacifists who claim to loathe guns, these dudes are way more into talking about their "fascination" with, like, bullet wounds than any of the gun-toting hunters and second amendment advocates that populate my semi-rural Illinois community. Also, they say the movie views guns as neutral; I disagree, and it seems they do, too, as a few seconds later, Vinterberg compares the Dandies curiosity about firearms with Von Trier's interest in studying Nazi history. I also don't buy the director's story about talking to a bunch of Americans in a bar and learning that all of them loved to name and talk to their guns.
You can hear more from Vinterberg in a commentary track; he's joined by director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle. The two discuss the philosophy and message of the film in equal measure with its production. Again, I think Vinterberg sees a lot more depth and subtlety in the movie than is really there, but the track is certainly never boring. I actually appreciate the chance to see where he was coming from.
Letters to Dear Wendy is a 25-minute making-of featurette that offers a pretty well rounded look at the production. We see the sets being built, we meet the actors, we watch as they "meet" their guns and fire them for the first time. I could have done without the format, which sets up each section of the piece as a letter to Wendy, the gun, and requires all the actors to keep saying things like "Dear, dear Wendy, making this movie was interesting."
A second commentary, presented over 20 minutes of film footage, carries on this nonsense as the director and cast read letters to Wendy. Jamie Bell: Dear, dear Wendy, I don't like you because you're a gun, and guns are bad. But I like Thomas Vinterberg! Skip it.
There are five deleted scenes (16m:37s), including an extended ending that goes even father over the top than the one that actually made it into the film. Finally, there are a bunch of trailers, including one for the feature that's actually very effective, and spots for Happy Hour, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (the Charles Manson story told with puppets; tasteful!), Reel Paradise, Unknown White Male and The Intruder.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsWell made but empty-headed and obvious, Dear Wendy offers another bizarre screed on American culture from Danish auteur Lars Von Trier. Calling it anti-American is probably too simple, and overstating things anyway. It's flat-out laughable, pretentious and dramatically ham-fisted, and that's too bad, considering the pedigree of all involved.
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