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Pointedly designed as a rebuke to sunny views of American adolescence, writer/director Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse plays like an early John Hughes teenflick given a disconcerting dose of reality. The melting pot is out of service at the pitiless suburban junior high attended by Dawn (Heather Matarazzo, 11 when she played the part), whose principal offenses against preteen standards of decency are to wear thick glasses and prim clothing and to have the last name “Wiener.” Her hateful classmates call her “Wiener dog,” while one of the few classmates who will speak to her is Brandon (Brendan Sexton Jr.), a downscale troublemaker and reputed drug dealer who informs her that he will “rape” her after school.
Dawn is an adequate student without the brains of her older brother, computer nerd Mark (Matthew Faber), or the grace of her little sister, aspiring ballerina Missy (Daria Kalinina). No more comfortable at home than at school, Dawn has only the refuge of her backyard clubhouse and her neighborhood pal, Ralphy (Dmitri Iervolino), who’s still safe in elementary school. Not entirely clear on the meaning on such epithets as “lesbo” (which she brings home from school and bestows on Missy), Dawn is nonetheless intrigued by the mysteries of sex. She develops an awkward romance with Brandon, her would-be rapist, while nursing a massive crush on Steve (Eric Mabius), the lead singer in her brother’s garage band. (In the sort of detail that would occur only to a scenarist as uneasy as Solondz, Mark has formed the band because he needs to pad the extracurricular activities section on his college applications.)
No feminist, Dawn tries to impress Steve with her culinary skills—“I know how to make Jell-O,” she tells him—while resisting her mother’s demands that she tear down her clubhouse for her parents’ 20th-anniversary party. Neither Steve nor Brandon turns out to be the man of her dreams, however, and Ralphy suddenly seems too young to be tolerated. Then, when Dawn’s fondest wish comes true—Missy, in a fierce riff on suburban paranoia, is kidnapped—she finds herself feeling guilty. She wants to be hailed for saving her sister, and to fit in well enough to take a promised bus trip to Disneyland with the school chorus.
Dollhouse is a suburban nightmare with a lower-Manhattan pedigree: Solondz is a former New York University film-school whiz who fled the film biz after the commercial failure of his first feature, 1989’s revealingly titled Fear, Anxiety, and Depression. Steve’s vocals are supplied by longtime Ramones collaborator Daniel Rey, and the songs were written by former Johnny Thunders bassist Jill Wisoff. (The one that provides the movie’s title was inspired by the New York Dolls, not Ibsen’s play.) This sensibility may explain the film’s rave reviews in New York, but what’s most remarkable about Dollhouse is its fidelity to the spirit of the suburban adolescent experience.
That’s spirit, not fact. Dollhouse is an exceptionally dark cartoon with no pretense to documentary accuracy. At times, this is a problem: Dawn’s mostly absent father is convincing, but her self-centered mother (Angela Pietropinto) is impossibly unsympathetic to her daughter’s sufferings. Still, Solondz expertly evokes the hypersensitive mood of preteendom; the 36-year-old filmmaker, who grew up in New York’s New Jersey suburbs, must remember the horror vividly. Viewers may quibble with individual details, but Dollhouse potently conjures the sleep of reason that is junior high school.
Some 20 years ago, Werner Herzog’s Every Man for Himself and God Against All (also released as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) plumbed the poetics of the true story of the unsocialized teenager found on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828. Writer/director Peter Sehr’s film tells the same tale, but with an emphasis on politics. Sehr accepts the theory, based on his and others’ recent research, that Kaspar was actually the heir to the throne of Baden, kidnapped by conspirators against his family and then sold to the rulers of rival Bavaria, which coveted Baden-controlled territory.
Kaspar (André Eisermann) is first helped by a man of modest means, Professor Daumer (Udo Samuel), who sees the boy as an example of man uncorrupted by human society. Though imprisoned in a small basement cell for 12 years without any human contact, Kaspar had spent the first four years of his life living in Hungary with a nanny, and thus had learned basic cognitive skills at the necessary age. (In his comments about the film, Sehr contrasts Kaspar with the “wolf boy” of Truffaut’s The Wild Child, who was never able to talk.) Kaspar learns to speak and write normally, although his perceptions of the world are of course colored by his 12 years of isolation. A child in an adult’s body, Kaspar is the real-life prototype of all those irksome Hollywood fantasies about men with boys’ consciousness, from Big to the upcoming Jack.
Kaspar is ultimately undone by two benefactors. Judge Feurbach (Hermann Beyer) begins an investigation that, with the help of one crucial memory from Kaspar, comes very close to the truth. The success of this inquiry, in Sehr’s opinion, leaves the conspirators no choice but to eliminate Kaspar. (In fact, the enigmatic young man was mysteriously stabbed to death in 1833, barely five years after emerging from his childhood prison.)
Before Kaspar’s death, however, his spirit had already been broken by a conniving English dandy, Lord Stanhope (Jeremy Clyde—yes, of Beatles-era Britpop duo Chad and Jeremy). Intervening on behalf of friends in the German aristocracy, Stanhope turns Kaspar into an imperious dandy, thus alienating the egalitarian Professor Daumer. Then, after promising him the life of a young nobleman in the English countryside, Stanhope abandons Kaspar to a cruel new guardian.
Perhaps because Sehr considers his historical hypothesis so compelling, his overlong film fully establishes the web of conspiracy before introducing Kaspar. His narrative approach is chronological and thorough, and also a bit stodgy. Though Gernot Roll’s natural-light cinematography provides an appropriately shadowy look, Sehr’s ’90s film seems old-fashioned compared with Herzog’s ’70s one. The director’s most offbeat touch is a preoccupation with excrement, presumably meant to symbolize corruption as well as to demonstrate that 19th-century European rulers didn’t fundamentally smell any better than their subjects.
The film’s most lively element—perhaps too lively—is Eisermann, who in portraying Kaspar obviously drew on his training as a clown. Though his performance won the German equivalent of an Oscar, it is a little high-pitched. (Asked about Sehr’s film when he appeared at the National Gallery in February, Herzog criticized only Eisermann’s performance.) Eisermann—and Sehr—may have depicted Kaspar Hauser accurately, and their version should certainly capture the imagination of history and conspiracy buffs. By the logic of cinema, however, Herzog’s version is definitive.
If it’s possible for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie to be too dumb—and maybe the concept just doesn’t apply—then Eraser would certainly qualify. A hash of stale clichés credited to scripters Tony Puryear and Walon Green (but reportedly doctored by another half-dozen writers), the film provides solid set pieces but a flimsy plot, frantic action but little character. It even has last year’s politics: Everyone in the federal government is corrupt except for one man, U.S. Marshal John Kruger (Schwarzenegger), who works for some extra-secret arm of the Witness Protection Program.
As has become customary in such flicks, things begin with an action prologue, in which Kruger rescues an anti-mob witness (Robert Pastorelli) and his wife from a gangland hit. As is also customary, Kruger arrives at the very instant the killers are about to do the deed. Such split-second timing continues to characterize Kruger’s work as he turns to the film’s principal assignment, protecting defense-contractor employee Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams), who went to the FBI when she discovered that her employer was about to sell top-secret, high-tech “rail guns” to a foreign buyer.
Kruger’s task is complicated by the fact that someone at his own agency is part of the high-level conspiracy to sell these weapons to the Russian mafia. (What do Russian mobsters need with green-glowing, X-ray-equipped assault rifles that shoot aluminum bullets at “just below the speed of light”? Maybe they’re planning on getting into the action-movie business.) Kruger can’t trust his superiors (who include aging tough guys James Caan and James Coburn), and the word goes out that Kruger himself is a mole who’s sold out his colleagues. (For those still bewildered by Mission: Impossible, this is same thing that happens to Tom Cruise in that flick.) Kruger and Cullen have no choice but to turn to some regular guys to help them defeat the corrupt Washington bureaucrats. (Even Kruger denounces “the feds,” as if he isn’t one.)
Despite all the script tinkering, Eraser is the sort of movie where the lines that get the biggest laughs weren’t written as gags, while the requisite new Schwarzenegger kiss-offs fall flat. Kruger is superhuman in strength, agility, and endurance, of course, but a little fuzzy on the basics of his job: After providing Lee with a new identity, he continues to call her by her original name. But then, Kruger just doesn’t seem inclined to follow procedure; despite being a Justice Department employee, he ultimately prefers vigilante measures to the court system (corrupt, too, of course).
If both Eraser’s setup and payoff are unsatisfying, Charles (The Mask) Russell’s direction does provide some remarkable sequences, notably one where Kruger jumps out of a plane, and around a flaming engine, without a parachute. Human flesh is gored with gusto: Kruger himself is twice punctured by metal pieces, amok alligators (who roar like lions) chew up bad guys, and Kruger uses a corpse as a shield. (Somehow, this gambit seemed more ghastly just a few years ago, in Total Recall.) The film’s biggest stunt, though, is one that Schwarzenegger’s persona has long portended: Kruger visits a Washington gay bar. Now, there’s a premise for a True Lies that would toy with the actor’s image far more provocatively than Junior.CP