Monthly Archives: August 2013

Humanity within the inhumane in Happiness and Life During Wartime

I recently watched Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, the spiritual successor/sequel to Happiness – Life During Wartime contains the same characters as Happiness, but played by an entirely new cast – and both films deal with similar issues. What’s most interesting about them – aside from the story lines, the dynamic between the three sisters (Joy, Helen and Trish) and the people connected to their lives – is the way that Solondz treats his characters. Of course, while it’s expected of a writer to be objective about their characters, with such a bleak view, it would almost be expected of Solondz to turn his characters into cheap punch lines, whereas the reality of the situation is quite the opposite; Solondz makes his characters interesting, developed, and occasionally even sympathetic. What Solondz does is fascinating, he finds humanity within the inhumane landscape of the characters in their world.

Take Lenny for example, the patriarch of the Jordan family (played by Ben Gazzara in Happiness), a man who is disenchanted with his marriage – although as he constantly says “I never used the word divorce” – who simply “wants to be alone.” He even tries to rekindle some sense of passion by having affair, and while we’d expect this to make him even easier to vilify, which he is by his wife, instead there are shades of tragedy and, ironically, genuine emotion, as it is discovered that Lenny suffers from Anhedonia, and is incapable of emotion. This is the kind of thing that Solondz does with the majority of his characters, while, to begin with they’re obscene and – to varying degrees – evil, as they and their stories develop, shades of humanity are revealed and the characters become fully fledged and somehow are made to be sympathetic, a testament to both the ability of Solondz as a storyteller, and his two casts in two different films.

Sometimes though, his characters are shown to be designated villains. At the beginning of Happiness, Joy (here played by Jane Adams) breaks up with Andy (Jon Lovitz), who then proceeds to unleash a tirade that is at once desperate and vitriolic and desperate, and its easy to hate him. But it is later learned that he killed himself; now, while this doesn’t inherently make him likeable, it highlights his desperation, it makes him human and more than just the hatred he levels at Joy. Even in Life During Wartime, Andy (now played by Paul Reubens) is seeking closure, even if he does it by haunting Joy (now Shirley Henderson), he claims that he needs her. Happiness is not found by him, as Joy banishes him from her life. Even if he still hasn’t found happiness, across both films, Andy is not a monster at all, he is instead a lonely man, still searching for peace.

When viewing Happiness and Life During Wartime as two pieces together, a fascinating journey is created for all of these characters, and their quests for happiness become more layered and more dynamic as their stories continue. Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffmam in Happiness and Michael Kenneth Williams in Life During Wartime) begins as a boring, miserable guy who makes obscene phone calls to women, including Joy. After many rejections, he begins to pay attention to Kristina, a tenant in his building, who killed a man that raped her. Of course, only in a Todd Solondz movie could two people who would normally be dubbed a pervert (Allen) and a killer (Kristina) find some semblance of happiness. In Life During Wartime, Allen is less desperate and alone, he is married to Joy and tries to control his compulsion to make obscene phone calls. When Joy leaves for a while to go to Florida – a place where Trish claims the past is “dead and buried” – to reassess her life, Allen kills himself and Joy is haunted by his ghost. He is once again a lonely man, urging Joy to kill herself so they can be together. As with Andy, Allen is banished from her life, and while Allen may not find piece, his humanity is crystal clear, and for all his deviance, there is a real human being beneath the surface.

This two-film consideration is also the best way to consider the most inhumane and perhaps outright villainous character in the films: Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker in Happiness, Ciarán Hinds in Life During Wartime). Bill is happily married to Trish, or so it seems, in spite of his fascination with his son’s friend, who he abuses, as well as saying he “jerks off” at the thought of abusing his son, Billy. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say Bill is a monster. At the end of Happiness he is imprisoned for his crimes. In Life During Wartime we see he is released from prison and, in traditional Solondz fashion finds brief solace in the arms of a self-professed “monster”, Jacqueline (Charlotte Ramplimg). Bill spends the majority of Life During Wartime trying to find his eldest son, Billy. He very bluntly asks him about his sex life, wanting to know if his son will follow in his footsteps, content that his son won’t be like him, he leaves. It is only in the final moments of Life During Wartime that we see Bill’s fate. When Timmy, Trish and Bill’s middle child, fresh from his bar mitzvah, says he wants his father to be in his life. Then we see Bill materialise, just as Andy and Allen did before him. Bill is another spirit, and while he remains a bad person, the potential for humanity that lurks beneath Bill is seen through the cracks, wanting nothing more than for his eldest son to be like anyone but him.

All in all, Solondz’s characters and the world they inhabit are anything but likeable, they’re perverts, pedophiles and killers. The genius of Solondz’s storytelling is that he doesn’t exhibit his characters like a gallery of freaks, he treats them with a detached curiosity, he allows their stories to unfold objectively, and in doing so, while they may seem inhumane, he shows that within it all, there are traces of humanity, perhaps they’re the better angels of the devils that inhabit the world of Happiness and Life During Wartime, wanting nothing other than to find their own joy, in spite of the world they live in and all the people around them; they’re all various degrees of monstrous, but that is far from all they are, as their angels fight to be heard.

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Best Leading Actor? – Categories and Campaigning at the Oscars

Yesterday, I learned on Twitter (via Gold Derby) that for their respective performances in Nebraska and Foxcatcher, Bruce Dern and Steve Carell would both be campaigning in Best Leading Actor. Now, whether or not this will stay true through the entirety of the season I don’t know, but it does raise an interesting question about categories and campaigns: what motivates actors (and studios of course) to change their category up or down?

Sometimes there’s the issue of ‘splitting votes’, wherein if two (or more) actors are nominated in the same category, that the votes being split across some or all of them will cause the film in general to go unrewarded. A friend of mine argued that the sheer number of actors nominated in Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather in 1972 – there were three, Paccino, Duvall and Caan – is a factor in Joel Grey winning for Cabaret – the sheer number of performances nominated for The Godfather that the vote was split three ways, and no individual performer had enough support to win. This kind of thing is what tends to cause films with multiple leading actors to drop one of them down into supporting instead. It happened with The Master; while the film was unseen everyone’s ballots had both of its main men (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix) in Best Leading Actor, then as more was learned about the film, people thought Hoffman would go leading, and then once the film was released, and campaigns began, it was instead Joaquin who campaigned in leading and Hoffman – in spite of the size of his role, went into supporting, in theory because if both were nominated in Best Leading Actor (which probably would have happened had they both submitted there), the chance of either of them winning would have been even less likely.

This is exactly the kind of predicament being faced by all of the leading men in Nebraska and Foxcatcher; the former has both Will Forte and Bruce Dern in Leading, and the latter has Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. Whether or not it will stay like this remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if both films had one of their leads campaign in supporting.

Similar thoughts have arisen with reference to Meryl Streep’s performance in August: Osage County, and the rumours that she will campaign in supporting. Of course, the issue of vote splitting in Best Leading Actress (between her and Julia Roberts) is an issue, as it would be in supporting (between her and Margo Martindale). Perhaps the difference is, if Meryl were to campaign in supporting, she’d be more likely to win; she has the second biggest role in the play that Osage County is being adapted from, and easily the showiest, playing a matriarch that spirals out of control and becomes addicted to prescription drugs.

Taking Meryl as an example, it’s clear that sometimes changing the category of your performance can be done to more easily secure a win for the performer in question. Some call it ‘category fraud’, and these were accusations levelled at the feet of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s campaign for The Master, although sometimes it is just good sense to not have your performances clash. It could be selling the film and its performances short, but it can sometimes be necessary  Of course, with Meryl, and indeed with all of the performers I’ve mentioned from this season, the notion of the categories is still utterly hypothetical, but it has given a chance for me to, however briefly, touch on vote splits and the idea of securing an ‘easy win’ for an actor.

What do you think? Was The Master category fraud? How will Dern, Carell and Meryl campaign? Have your say in the comments.

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Review – Now You See Me

Death, The Lover, The Hermit and The High Priestess are all waiting for a stranger to let them inside a dingy New York apartment. Sounds like the set-up to a very niche joke, but it’s actually the ending of the prologue to the magic oriented thriller Now You See Me. The prologue wastes no time in establishing its principle characters – four talented magicians – amidst a flurry of fascinating illusions, before they’re all brought together. And that’s when the action really begins.

On face value, the best thing about Now You See Me is, without a doubt, the magic tricks; partly because they’re brilliantly realised from a visual point of view, and partly because the show what the film’s strongest asset really is. Now You See Me unfolds like a magic trick. It may not used the three-act magic trick structure that’s dissected in detail in Christopher Nolan’s magician thriller The Prestige, but instead, what it does is establish it’s own views on magic. According to Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) magic is “controlled deception, designed for entertainment”, and this is how the magic of the film unfolds. It challenges you to try and deconstruct the tricks, and figure out the next step in the grand illusion that the Four Horsemen (the stage name of the four magician once they’re working together) are planning.

The Four Horsemen themselves are played by Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, and fortunately, their chemistry together, both when they’re performing magic and when they’re performing illusions on stage and when they’re not, is excellent. They deliver dialogue at pace, never missing a beat, and while none of the performances are exactly exemplary, they all seem to bring out a nice element of each other as performers. Harrelson steals scenes, as he always does, and Fisher has screen presence in spades (her chemistry with Eisenberg is particular highlight, and their exchanges are always great). Unfortunately, the Four Horsemen are just the tip of the iceberg in an ensemble that features a few more principle characters, which is what presents the first major fault in Now You See Me; it often feels a little muddled and unsure of itself. We’re presented with an FBI agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, who slurs a lot of his dialogue for no real reason) who’s on the trail of the Horsemen and the crimes they commit during their shows (but going into them now would be a major spoiler), but the film never really seems to want us to side with anyone. It’s heroes and villains seem to get confused amidst the razzle dazzle of the film. Between that and the way Rhodes becomes the audience, in that the magic tricks are revealed to him, both for the benefit of the investigation, and for the audience as well, it seems like Now You See Me just doesn’t know how to treat its audience, falling into exposition-heavy pitfalls that plague summer blockbusters as they try and coast by on special effects and more style than substance.

Now, while Now You See Me has style in abundance, from its magic tricks to its fast paced (if at times irritatingly kinetic) camerawork, that’s not to say there isn’t more going on beneath the surface. It’s unsure treatment of its audience aside, it’s actively engaging in a unique way, as you try and stay a step ahead of what’s on screen, but remember “the more you think you see, the easier it will be to fool you.”

I feel I almost need to applaud the ambition of this film; as I’ve mention a couple of times, it’s actively engaging in a way that most summer blockbusters aren’t, and even if it’s reach exceeds its grasp at times, with an exposition heavy final act that seems to bring twists and turns out of nowhere (even though most of them have more than satisfactory explanations), the narrative is told at a breakneck pace – not a second is wasted, and almost everything on screen is important in some way – and doesn’t have any point sub-plots or filler characters. It’s only real problem is muddled points of view; from the grand robberies that take place on stage, it feels like the Four Horsemen could be a group of Robin Hood’s for the Occupy generation, but instead their motivations seem muddled and arbitrary.

It’s bold and filled with flash, but the most pleasantly surprising thing about Now You See Me is, for all of that, and the twists and turns that are thrown out with reckless abandon, there’s some substance there, as four totally different characters are brought together by something. What that something is might not be too important after all, especially after the man behind the curtain is revealed, but there’s genuine character development. If it didn’t get so lost in its own tricks now and then, it’d be pretty tough to fault, but the four magicians perform with gusto and sell the whole thing well. Now You See Me is a refreshing and engaging blockbuster that’s a much needed breath of fresh air.

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