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Revenge is a dish best served by a Dane 

Something's rotten in Denmark. Or on a soundstage in Denmark, anyway, which for the purposes of Dogville stands in for a small town in the Rockies during the Depression. Well, the chalk outlines of a town, because aside from those and some furniture, that is all we see of it. Director Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark) takes Our Town and makes it his: his idea of what America is like and what is wrong with it.

            A narrator introduces us to the quaint community and to the homiletic thorn in its side: Tom, who is ever vigilant in his moral judgment of the other denizens of Dogville. Tom is obsessed with offering his services for the town's betterment, as Von Trier appears to be for us.

            While the director may be spoofing himself in this regard, the film is a hall of mirrors when it comes to the topic. People pass judgment on one another, the judging itself is judged, the film judges this and, by implication, it's very own point --- until even refraining from judgment is called into question.

            If this sounds didactic, in a playful way it's meant to be. One could almost picture it being performed in a high school auditorium (until things get ugly). It's no accident that the film adopts the trappings of a theater performance, however loosely it plays with them. It contains some of the most striking and cinematic shots you'll see this year, despite the austerity of the stage, and discontinuous editing helps slip the artifice into something more human, communicating moments like a memory.

            The film resembles a low-key theater rehearsal, and this really strips the wheat from the chaff, acting-wise. A few of the younger actors don't fare well, bare of the context that can sometimes blur their weaknesses in other films, and the veteran actors shine effortlessly. The rest, Kidman included, perform quite well --- as invisibly as the sets, in fact.

            The means of telling the story and the simplicity of the lesson it seems to present fall away as the story rolls along. Kidman plays a mysterious fugitive who stumbles into town and tests the goodness of its people, to Tom's delight. She ends up enriching their lives, and then, people being what they are, it all takes a turn for the worse. A great ending somewhat misses its cue, but Von Trier makes up for it with a bewilderingly ambiguous, entertainingly provocative credit sequence that makes you wonder what his point really was.

            Dogville's "play" is less an indictment of America than of human nature. America gets dragged into it in Von Trier's stated intentions and the disorienting end credits, but his only point seems to be to blindside us with his invective for a place he has famously never been. He's like an attack dog bouncing off a chain link fence while we, America, turn dully and stare with mild confusion. You shake your head, it makes no sense, but it's a lot of fun to watch.

Comic-book adaptationThe Punisher opens with an Ennio Morricone-style revenge theme, as befits its premise. Apparently the producers couldn't get the rights to "What Have I Done To Deserve This," so you'll have to listen to it on the way home in your car, or just think it while you watch the movie.

            This is The Punisher's back story, how he got his nickname (or came up with it, for he breaks one of life's most important rules and gives himself his nickname). An FBI agent, his undercover work leads to the death of the son of the villain played by John Travolta. So Travolta wipes out the guy's extended family --- not that you care, because all you have seen of them are tedious Hallmark moments.

            On this basis begins his revenge scheme, if you can call it that, The Punisher (Thomas Jane) transforms himself into a one-man A-Team (Master Craft manages a plug) and then just kind of sits around and hangs out. Sporadically he goes out and picks off someone involved in the massacre, and then goes back to the skeevy loft building he shares with a motley trio of unwanted neighbors.

            The two guys are audience-surrogate fanboy geeks who exist mainly to gush with admiration and awe over him. The woman is a hard-luck waitress hanging out with them when not working in a pin-drop empty greasy spoon, and is played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. This is actually the most plausible of the script's endless array of head-scratchers, which, if cataloged here, would require a special pullout section of the paper.

            The implausibilities are often a welcome respite from the drudgery of the exposition and the waiting. Travolta and his screen wife embrace the ham of the occasion, but otherwise there is scant occurrence of comic-book fun, or of anything interesting. A funny, ridiculous brawl with a Russian strongman is the rare exception, but a bit about a singing hitman just mystifies.

            The final moment of revenge is so contrived and pointless that it doesn't satisfy in even the most cursory way. The fact that Dogville, a Danish art flick, boasts a far more satisfying revenge sequence is pretty darn sad, and punishment indeed.

Dogville (R), starring Nicole Kidman, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, written and directed by Lars Von Trier, Pittsford Cinema. The Punisher (R), starring Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, Canandaigua Theatres.

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