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Dharma Guns
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by Jay Seaver

"A cool-sounded title, but it means nothing."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You know what I hate about movies like "Dharma Guns", beyond their specific individual faults? The way that such art-house fantasies all too often wind up suffering from the same deficiencies as their mainstream cousins, implying that the thriller or science fiction genres are inherently flawed, when in fact it is more often a case of powerful tools being placed in untrained hands, who proceed to make a hash of things.

Stan Van Der Decken (Guy McKnight) awakes from a coma with memory problems that lead him to the Azores, where he hopes to reconnect with his love Délie Starkov (Elvire) and finish his screenplay Dharma Guns, as well as consult with shrink Doctor Ewers (Diogo Dória), who has also been treating Délie since the accident that injured Stan triggered a breakdown. However, the screenplay often seems to be exerting control over him rather than vice versa, making for a very porous border between reality and delusion.

The movie opens well enough, with a playful, nouvelle vague-ish water-skiing sequence that is fashionable and straight-faced enough to be homage but also just exaggerated enough to be parody. The slick, black-and-white cinematography of Gleb Teleshov, the soundtrack that bounces semi-ironically, the plain-spoken way that characters rattle off the most absurd of lines - all are familiar reminders of a proud movement in French film, and writer/director/editor F.J. Ossang manages to make them feel less like pastiche than earnest continuation. Dharma Guns is the work of a man as intrigued by the language of movies as those whose footsteps he follows.

The frustration comes from how Ossang at times seems to be interested in nothing but the language of cinema. For much of them film, when he has the choice to define his world, move the story forward, or create and ambiguity, he'll almost always choose the third choice, which means that when he does start trying to build to a climax toward the end, it's meaningless; there's no environment for Stan's actions to take place against. The self-referentiality of the scriptwriting scenes makes no interesting comments on film or anything outside of film, and never clicks as a mechanism for trying to reconstruct a broken mind. The plot that develops makes references to immortality formulas and zombies, but it never seems like Ossang has actually thought about such things; he's just taken a few sci-fi tropes and used them in as entirely superficial a manner as anybody making a Big Dumb Blockbuster.

The cast does all right, given that even the ones not stuck with dual identities are deliberate ciphers. Guy McKnight is fine as the confused Stand Van Der Decken, seizing on the idea that "amnesiac" doesn't have to mean "passive", even beyond what the script dictates. Elvire (whose career appears to be playing in Ossang films) has nice scenes with McKnight; the pair build a nice little relationship out of very little. Lionel Tua and Diogo Dória hit the right notes in their parts.

Of course, Ossang gives himself an out at the end, a blanket explanation for why things don't make any sense and an opportunity to nullify what came before. It's a nifty stab at creating atmosphere, but atmosphere alone does not a movie make.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=21561&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/23/11 01:16:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 67th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 67th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  F.J. Ossang

Written by
  F.J. Ossang

Cast
  Guy McKnight
  Elvire
  Lionel Tua
  Diogo Dória
  F.J. Ossang



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