A History of Violence

America is a geographical history of violence – a land of brutality, sadism and murder.
David Cronenberg's A History of Violence dissects our basic desire for mayhem with the careful ease of a torturer peeling back a scar. Cronenberg is best known for directing creepy science fictions like Videodrome, Naked Lunch and Crash, but in History he does something unexpected: He opens a wound in small town America to show the things squirming below.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an easygoing family man living in America’s heartland with his wife and two children. He owns a small diner, slouches around wiping up spills and discussing the weather. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) is an attorney, their son Jack (Ashton Holmes) is an ordinary teenager waiting out his time in one of those small towns that seem to disappear when you leave, and Tom and Edie’s toddler daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) is still too young to know she’s living in nowhere USA.
Tom’s peaceful world is shattered when two psychopaths decide to rob the diner. Blazing a path of bodies across the country and into Tom’s little diner, the two outlaws are exhausted by the carnage they create around them. Violence is a slow and tedious process sometimes and Cronenberg has a good eye for details, showing criminal brutality as a tiring ritual with all the charm of a small boy torturing an insect to death. 
The killers represent a frightening sort of violence; cheerless, chaotic sadism conjured up from the road itself. Millbrook, the small town where the Stalls live, has domesticated this sort of energy out of its men, rendered them as model citizens and good neighbors, and the killers approach the town as born predators.
Wolves among sheep, they immediately cow the customers at Tom’s dinner, who are terrified by their show of force. But Tom cuts their casual crime spree short by shooting them dead and the town celebrates him as a hero. Tom’s violence reminds them of their own capacity for bloodlust, their own cowboy impulses to punish the wicked.
When Tom becomes a media spectacle, however, gangsters come to Millbrook, thinking that he’s the long-lost brother of a mafia gang leader. Eddie Cusack was a cold-blooded murderer, and Philadelphia mobster Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris) is certain that Tom is actually Eddie on the lam. Eddie blinded Fogaty with a wad of barbed wire and the dead eye can now see through the Tom’s impersonation into the killer within.     
There is a disturbing drumming beneath the beat of ordinary life in Millbrook, even before Tom shoots the killers and the Stalls meet Fogaty. Edie and Tom play weird sexual games that smack of sadomasochism and Jack is bullied in school (a wolf in lamb’s clothes), and the small town’s inclination to protect its own resonates oddly when your own might be a murderer. When violence is released in the Stall family it burns out of control.
Tom is a member of the community and a father to a young family, whether or not he’s actually Eddie. The violence Tom unleashes defending his town against the killers is first accepted with pride, then as a necessary part of life as it radiates outward. Our families and towns protect what’s ours, even if it’s diseased, even if it will devour us from the inside out. The killer is a hero, a man who sits at the head of the table, a problem we can handle ourselves in our small towns, in our isolated little families.
America was created by outlaws and religious zealots who wanted to start a new life in a new country. Like Tom, they wanted nothing more than a chance to start over, an opportunity to leave everything behind, and like Tom they brought their violent tendencies with them. It runs deep inside us, passes through our genes, is recounted in stories and legend, dragged out when we need to be reminded of our strength and brutality. 
We think we’ve left all that behind in our move to the West and back again, but Cronenberg reminds us there’s still a little wildness in our lives, a little cannibalistic pride buried under Main Street.


The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Play dough has never been this fun.
If anything can pull today’s kids away from their computers it’s the new film Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.  It’s natural for old grumps like me to root for play-dough characters at a time when computer-generated ogres, superheroes, and zoo characters have bullied out traditional forms of animation on the big (and small!) screen, but you can’t write off a film like The Curse of the Were-Rabbit to mere David and Goliath nostalgia.
Take Gromit, a silent, faithful bit of white play-dough in the shape of a dog put together in such a primitive way that you can occasionally make out fingerprints in the clay, for example. It’s easy to forget the absurd details in the latest DreamWorks’ creation when you’re convinced of the reality of a pooch that could have been rolled on someone’s kitchen table.
It’s amazing how emotive Gromit is, how much depth can be conveyed in his simple form, and he’s a genuine scene stealer in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It would be cinematic suicide to put him with Shrek whathisname, DreamWorks’ famous ogre, or even the morose characters in Burton’s Corpse Bride. In fact, Gromit could put some of Hollywood “A” actors to shame as well, in the same way that Triumph the Insult Dog made Jennifer Lopez look wooden at the MTV Music Awards.       
The landscape Gromit and his bald, middle-class, middle-aged, cheese-loving master Wallace (Peter Sallis) walk through is ordinary and amazing; magical and everyday. Instead of a world of Toy Story super-realism or the over-emotional gothic stagework of Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, Wallace and Gromit live in a British hamlet with petty bourgeoisie who are obsessed with vegetables, of all things.    
Wallace and Gromit are Anti-Pesto, adored pest-control officers protecting innocent greens from a ravenous rabbit population whose appetite seems almost unappeasable. Wallace is a genius inventor with a simple nature that always seems to undo his work, but his surveillance system – which uses garden gnome cameras and other anti-rabbit devices – works flawlessly.
Wallace decides to attempt a brave experiment as the town prepares for its annual Giant Vegetable Competition. In an effort to make rabbits harmless to vegetables, Wallace attempts a mass bunny brainwashing that combines A Clockwork Orange and The Fly, but it backfires releasing a were-rabbit in the town. 
The town initially calls on Anti-Pesto, but when they can’t seem to stop the beast’s rampage a local sports-hunter steps in to help the town and impress the local aristocracy.  Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) is an English Elmer Fudd, an anti-Wallace who would rather see all rabbits dead than captured.
Combining tropes from classic horror films such as The Fly and The Curse of the Werewolf, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a joy for fans of the genre. You know the creators are also big fans you when the resident geezer starts talking about giant slug invasions or the duck plague of 1953, or the town paper’s front page story is titled “Night of Vegetable Carnage.” 
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is almost too fun for adults for a film rated “G.” It taps into a sense of child-like wonder without becoming sappy and entertains the over-six crowd, not by throwing adult softballs that go over youngsters’ heads, but by being charming, and smart enough to appeal to any age group.
Let’s hope Hollywood didn’t break the mold after releasing The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I know a couple of actors who could learn a thing or two by studying how much emotion can be wrung out of a clay dog’s face.

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