Review – Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne is a man who is knowing for making a very particular type of film; films about middle-aged men in crisis, and as a result of this there’s something of a worry that any new film he makes could be doing nothing more than retreading old ground. Fortunately, in the case of his latest effort, Nebraska, such qualms are resoundingly dispelled, and he’s crafted what is, in my opinion, the best film in his canon.

It tells the rather simply story of a man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), trying to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect $1 million he believes he’s won, and roping his reluctant son, David (Will Forte), along for the ride. There is of course much more to the film than this alone, it explores the fractured dynamics of the Grant family, the deteriorating health of Woody, his uneasy relationship with his wife (June Squibb) and sons (Forte and Bob Odenkirk) as well as the very nature of being on the road.

There is something almost metaphorical about the treatment of the road and travel in Nebraska, they are not just covering distance and going to Lincoln but instead, in a way that is perhaps cliche of road movies and road novels (it brings to mind the Kerouacian sense of self discovery in works like On the Road), they also discover themselves, as well as each other along the way. When Woody and David set off together, their relationship is uneasy to say the least, they scarcely speak a word to each other – although that can be said of Woody throughout the film – and David’s resentment is not masked, but perhaps the reason for this is that the two men seem to know nothing about one another, and, more importantly, neither do the audience. To begin with, Woody is unlikeable, he is distant and cold towards his family and gaining any attachment to him is almost impossible given he never seems entirely present. But as the film goes on and David – and by extension the audience – discover more about him and this cold man is peeled away to reveal, in his place, someone almost tragic, a point truly brought home when David says to someone else (in reference to Woody) “he just believes what people tell him,” and the power behind that simple statement is that it’s true, for better or worse, Woody believes what he hears.

Dern’s performance as Woody is nothing short of masterful, if just because he can do so much with so little. Woody is a man who is clearly in the early stages of something like dementia, and by seemingly doing nothing; looking off into the distance, standing away from everyone else, Dern effortlessly embodies a man who is clearly not entirely there, both physically and mentally. His dialogue is sparse throughout the film, more often than not he simply “yes,” “no,” or “what?” and the testament to the strength of his performance is that he can say so much with so little. When Woody, David, Ross and Kate (Woody’s wife) are back in the town where Woody grew up, they visit the house he lived in as a child, and in there, his past is brought to light in a way that is so calm that it becomes more powerful. When he is in the room he and his young brother slept in, he is asked if he was there when his brother died (he died very young). Woody simply says “I was there.” In his parent’s old bedroom, he says “this was my parent’s room. I’d get whipped if I was caught in here. Guess there’s no-one to whip me now.” These few lines create such a strong emotional response, as well as a connection with Woody’s character, that they show just how good Dern’s performance is, it’s understated and restrained nature in no way weakens it’s power. The same can be said for Forte as David; although he has more dialogue and is generally more animated than his father, it is the quieter moments, those in between vitriolic lines of dialogue, that highlight how good Forte is in the role. Squibb is generally more eccentric than the two men, more outspoken and chiefly the most comical of the major characters; her performance is full of moments that lighten the film and inject it with an almost infectious energy.

Infectious is also the best way to describe Woody’s resolve to get to Lincoln. Even though the audience are more than aware that there will not be $1 million waiting for him, it’s impossible not to will him on to his final destination. Besides, the money isn’t even the most important reason for Woody’s travelling to Lincoln. Once again, this comes back to the seemingly metaphorical treatment of travel in the film; the more distance between Woody and his house, or the town he grew up in, the more alive he seems to become; travelling for Woody isn’t just about the prize, it’s about finding something to hold on to, some energy to inject his life with. As he says “I ain’t got long left,” and it seems he’ll be damned before he spends it sitting around in the same house day after day.

It’s not a perfect film by any means; there are issues with the pacing. This isn’t to say that the film takes a long time to get going, it moves deftly and at almost two hours in length, sails by. Instead, it takes a while to truly ‘click,’ or at least it did with me; it wasn’t until Woody’s return to his hometown that I began to love the film; it’s early scenes almost have a detachment to them that, while seemingly done by design, could make it difficult for an attachment to be formed to characters later on, when it’s needed the most.

Perhaps the most effective dramatic device in Nebraska is the way that it balances humour and pathos, both in its writing and characters (Squibb’s animated comedy works as an excellent counterpoint to the dry, stoic elements on the surface of Dern’s performance). What’s most effective about the humour in Nebraska is that it’s used, in that age old way, as a defence mechanism. Early on in their travels, Woody and David go to a bar and have a beer together. The conversation is awkward, and stilted, and instead of being serious, the two men tell jokes, but it is when the laughter stops that the reality of their respective situations set in. David reveals to his father that his girlfriend of two years left him, as well as speaking up about Woody’s alcoholism. Woody of course, gives as good as he gets, before leaving and spitting out to his son “you can’t tell me what to do, cocksucker.”

Stunningly shot in black and white, Nebraska is very much an exercise in restraint, less being more. With Dern’s faultless performance at the center, the film is about so much more than just Woody’s mythical million; it is about fathers and sons, the past as a prison, the allure of the road and a straightforward refusal to let go. Quietly tragic and triumphant, with superb performances from the ensemble (Bob Odenkirk continues to impress as an actor beyond simply being Saul in Breaking Bad), Nebraska is the best film Alexander Payne has made yet, and one of the strongest of the year.

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Updated 2013-14 Oscar predictions

I haven’t made any Oscar predictions since the very beginning of the season (other than a short piece about some of the films coming out of Cannes), but that can probably just be attributed to a general silence on the blog for a while, something I hoping to rectify soon, especially with awards season – which I always enjoy – is reaching it’s peak.

Given it’s reaching the end of the year and all of the major awards contenders have been seen, bar a few like The Wolf of Wall Street and Foxcatcher, but by now I think the latter of those two won’t be around this season (although I may have read something to the contrary a little while ago, there’s been utter silence in terms of news about it for a while), then it seems now is as good a time as any to do a revised, which will hopefully prove to be more accurate than my predictions from the beginning of the season, which included nominations for films like The Fifth Estate and Diana.

Best Picture

Gravity
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Saving Mr. Banks
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
Her
Dallas Buyers Club
Nebraska

At this point most Best Picture ballots will probably all look like that, with Her being a surprising pick, although it seems more than possible after the groundswell of support it’s received from critics groups over the last week or so. There are a few films that, while not on this list of ten, are very Academy friendly, and so their rather middle of the road critical reception may not get in the way, and of all the films like that, the most likely to try to get into Best Picture is August: Osage County, with it’s award-winning credentials (Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play) and A-list cast (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and the like), it might just creep in. Blue Jasmine is also a possibility given Woody tends to receive nominations when he’s on form, and given this may be his best film of the last few years, the Academy might want to reward him for it with a Best Picture nomination.

Best Director

Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne for Nebraska
Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips
David O. Russell for American Hustle

There are plenty of other contenders here, given that it’s in general been a strong year, and there have been some surprise critics winners (again, Her is suddenly in the conversation here), but these seem like fairly safe bets, given some of them have received nominations in the past (Russell, Greengrass and Payne), and something like Gravity just seems like a pick that’s “edgy” and “different” by Academy standards, so they might just go for it.

Best Actor

Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips
Bruce Dern for Nebraska
Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford for All Is Lost

Perhaps the major surprise here is Redford, given that, although his performance is the strongest aspect of All Is Lost, it seemed to lose a lot of momentum after its release and the early raves for Redford, especially since there were no other major awards people were saying it should be nominated for (although Chandor’s direction is excellent), and until the NYFCC winners, he seemed like he was out of the race entirely (presumably to be replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street), but the win there has suddenly thrust him back into the conversation.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock for Gravity
Meryl Street for August: Osage County
Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine
Emma Thompson for Saving Mr. Banks
Judi Dench for Philomena

While this list looks like most others at this point in the season, Best Actress is stronger this year than it’s been in quite a while, and there are plenty of performances that could sneak in (my gut is telling me that Streep and Dench are the most vulnerable to taken out), given Amy Adams has received acclaim for her turn in American Hustle, and many would say that she’s due for a leading nomination after several in Best Supporting Actress. And then there’s indie darling Frances Ha (which is unlikely, but not impossible, Gerwig’s performance is excellent, and if the screenplay gets in, there’s the chance that the Academy notice the strength of the performance too), and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, which also, rather disappointingly, seems unlikely, but it would certainly be a pleasant surprise if she got in.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Forte for Nebraska
Michael Fassbender for 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club
Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street
Brakhad Abdi for Captain Phillips

Jonah Hill is an interesting one here, given many are saying that his work in Wolf… is the best performance of his career, and he does have a prior Oscar nomination (Moneyball), yet  at the same time, the sheer number of performances worthy of consideration could knock him off. There’s Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks, which the Academy will probably love, and the late great James Gandolfini’s superb work in Enough Said which has gotten more notice after the critics groups (although his categorization as a supporting actor is debatable). While Abdi may be on the outside looking in on most ballots, I had to include him in my top five here simply because his performance is so good that I couldn’t justify not having it there.

Best Supporting Actress

Oprah for Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave
Octavia Spencer for Fruitvale Station
Jane Squibb for Nebraska

Squibb seems to have come out of nowhere, but all of a sudden she has quite a bit of momentum behind her, although I feel like she’s vulnerable to being knocked off, perhaps by someone like Julia Roberts (or one of the other women, maybe Margo Martindale, in August: Osage County) or, to make a brave/ridiculous (delete as appropriate) claim, if the Academy take to Her as strongly as the critics did, Johansson could get in for her voice performance, which would certainly be an interesting turn of events.

Best Original Screenplay

Blue Jasmine, by Woody Allen
Inside Llewyn Davis, by Joel and Eathan Coen
Nebraska, by Bob Nelson
Her, by Spike Jonze
American Hustle, by David O. Russell and Eric Singer

There are some other contenders here, like Gravity, but it doesn’t really have the support the film’s other aspects do; the film with the best chance of breaking in here is probably Saving Mr. Banks, although this list of five seems rather strong, although where Banks has a shot is that there’s no typically “Academy” fare, except perhaps the mere presence of Woody Allen, but the films themselves don’t really cry out to the taste of the Academy members, so that could help Banks sneak in.

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave, by John Ridley
Before Midnight, by Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater
The Wolf of Wall Street, by Terrence Winter
Captain Phillips, by Billy Ray
Philomena, by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope

I feel like the fact Before Midnight has unfortunately run out of awards momentum makes it perilously vulnerable, which is a shame because it’s a wonderful film and I’d love to see it get a nomination somewhere. I suppose the question becomes; what would replace it? Adapted Screenplay doesn’t feel as packed with contenders as the other categories, although it’s possible that August: Osage County could get in, but beyond that, I’m not really sure what could take the slot from Before Midnight.

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LFF Review – Enough Said

Enough Said is a film that will be released in the wake of tragic circumstances – the death of James Gandolfini – and as a result, it may not always get judged by its merits alone, which is a shame, because it’s great and is more than capable of standing on its own two feet.

It tells the story of Eva and Albert (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini), both middle-aged and divorced, who meet at a party, and in the wake of saying neither is attracted to anyone there, begin a tentative relationship, with both of them slightly surprised at the type of person that they’re with. From the off it’s clear that Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have superb chemistry (and Gandolfini proves to be an accomplished comic actor), and simply watching them meet and awkwardly make small talk is a joy in itself. While at the party, Eva also meets Marianne who, she later discovers, is Albert’s ex-wife. This dynamic is what propels most of the drama in the film, but the problem is, it’s not as interesting as it could be and occasionally feels like a distraction from the best part of the film; the relationship between Eva and Albert.

From their first date onwards – and with the help of an excellent script – there is not a single moment that rings false, all of the humour feels genuine; both things that are said, and the awkward pauses in the conversations, and none of the drama is forced. The dramatic aspects of the film, particularly the turmoil on Eva and Albert’s relationship after he discovers Eva’s friendship with his ex-wife, are among its best moments, and seeing Louis-Dreyfus perform something more serious than comic is a rare pleasure.

Enough Said isn’t exactly groundbreaking however, it follows a similar structure to most romantic comedies, as well as a sub-plot about Eva’s daughter going to college, but fortunately it never feels like its retreading old ground, its excellent execution of standard ideas mean it always feels like a breath of fresh air. Its helped by a strong supporting cast, including Toni Collette as a friend of Eva’s (even if her accent does jump around a bit) and Ben Falcone as Collette’s husband, who steals scenes constantly and provides some of the film’s biggest laughs. It also never feels empty, no plots or characters are wasted and, even if it’s telling us things we already know about second chances and people moving on in their lives, watching these characters in particular navigate it is what makes it so good.

Refreshing, witty, and with moments of understated and effective drama, Enough Said may be forever marred by tragedy, but should instead be a reminder to the singular talent of James Gandolfini. It’s a damn great film, and I can only hope the circumstances surrounding its release won’t change that.

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LFF Review – All Is Lost

Some films, no matter who’s involved in creating them, will be a tough sell to an audience. All Is Lost, an essentially wordless tale of a man lost at sea (played by Robert Redford, and simply called Our Man), is one such film. And while it may be a tough sell, it’s certainly a worthwhile one, with Redford giving one of the strongest performances so far this year, and the film itself being created to a painstakingly high standard.

Writer/director J. C. Chandor is of course known for his excellent Margin Call, and to see him move from something like that – very dialogue heavy, with a large scope – to this, an intimate study of one man trying to stay alive, is fascinating. While of course none of his ability as a writer of dialogue is present, his ability as a director has only developed; everything is done with purpose, nothing is wasted here, which seems fitting given the situation Our Man is in. Between this and the high calibre filmmaking – the cinematography is stunning and the visual effects are strong – the fight for survival that Our Man endures becomes visceral and gripping in a way that seems almost unexpected given the quiet intimacy that defines a great deal of the film.

Sometimes as good as a film is as a whole, there is a single piece – normally a performance – that stands above the sum of the individual parts. Like with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Redford does this for All Is Lost. Although his performance is almost entirely reactionary to the things around him, it is an incredible piece of work, something subtle and nuanced, where every single moment can mean life or death, his building desperation is truly something else to behold, Redford’s performance is a towering achievement.

All Is Lost is unfortunately not without problems; it’s pacing – particularly a final act that feels longer than it should – can’t help but make the whole thing feel a bit too Kafkaesque. And of course, while it’s intimate with Our Man, everything else feels vague and abstract. There’s a lot to be read into by audiences, it’s about survival, survival of the American Hero and there are a host of metaphorical things to explore. Unfortunately, All Is Lost doesn’t do that. There’s plenty to be said, but Chandor remains quiet.

It might be too long at times, and even put its own hopes at realism and pragmatism – something mirrored superbly in Chandor’s direction – in danger by indulging with its length, but at its best, All Is Lost is an intimate and gripping tale of survival, and Redford is nothing short of incredible. It might be a tough sell, but if nothing else, it should be seen for his performance.

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LFF Review: Late At Night: Voices of Ordinary Madness

When I hear the phrase “ordinary madness,” I think of Charles Bukowski, who had a tendency to write about people that society considered to be a little downtrodden, who struggled to make ends meet and weren’t all shining examples of, in the case of Bukowski, the American Dream. Much like Bukowski, in Late at Night: Voices of Ordinary Madness, Xiaolu Guo looks at (mostly) the working class in the east end of London as they live in their own corners of the sprawling metropolis.

The first noticeable thing about Voices of Ordinary Madness is the objectivity and non-judgemental gaze through which the people in it are considered. While that’s expected in documentaries, it’s difficult not to think that most people would raise an eyebrow when they’re told that a man strangled their psychiatrist. These are exactly the kinds of things that are hear almost as horror stories in places like London, but Guo looks at these people as if they are no different from anyone else, that their madness is indeed ordinary. That’s when the film is at its strongest, when the kaleidoscope of people interviewed – immigrants, fishmongers, men with criminal pasts – all divulge how their world functions, and even though they are disconnected from one and other, a portrait of a place is shown with intimacy and honesty.

While this, the backbone of the film is consistently effective, as each chapter in the lives of these people is revealed, the film cuts away to a Warhol-esque newsreader; anywhere between one and screens of the same person reading the same news story (all of the stories are real), which range from the utterly trivial – the announcement that a celebrity couple have had a child – to the harrowing – a woman who is asking for the death penalty to be reinstated – with a philosophical or political quote superimposed across the screen, with the sources ranging from Orwell to James Joyce to Emmanuel Kant. The question I asked myself whenever this happened, was “why?” Occasionally it works as a counterpoint to these people – whose lives are often considered by the media to be full of problems, and even in need of saving – and the gradually increasing horrors of what are shown by the media; none of which seem to impact the lives or location of the people interviewed. However, it often seems that Voices of Ordinary Madness seems to have political or philosophical delusions of grandeur; the weaving together of these people is effective enough that the film doesn’t need to frame it in this grander scope. In terms of the film’s visual style, these sequences are effective, there’s a kind of grittiness to them (helped greatly by the music used in the background of these news sequences) that adds to the realism of the film, it just feels as if it’s grasping at thematic straws every now and then.

Voices of Ordinary Madness is a very strong documentary, it looks at people that are often left in the cold, doing so with empathy and honest, the dark sides of their lives are never deliberately demonised, and perhaps the more tragic side – a cafe that is essentially out of business, which then implicitly hints at the destitution of those that work there – is never made forcefully emotive. It doesn’t always succeed in delivering its message; it’s philosophy sometimes feels shoehorned in, but at its best, it offers an earnest look at a group of people who’s stories go unheard too often.

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LFF Review – Kill Your Darlings

We begin close to the end, with Lucien Carr holding the dying David Kammerer in his arms, in an image befitting an ancient tragedy, as we hear the thoughts of Allen Ginsberg. Moments after, we are at the beginning, with Ginsberg discovering he has been accepted into Columbia.

It is at Columbia that Ginsberg meets the aforementioned Carr, who takes the young poet-to-be under his wing and down the rabbit hole into the heart of the beginning of the Beat Generation, with Lucien even calling the young Ginsberg “Allen in wonderland” during his first night of excess. Radcliffe as Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as Lucien are utterly superb together, their chemistry is palpable, and they are entirely committed to their roles and each give incendiary performances. The film as a whole is perfectly cast, both from a physical perspective – Jack Huston and Ben Foster are ringers for Kerouac and Burroughs respectively – but the sheer talent of the cast that’s on display, and the level of commitment to portraying these people – Ben Foster, for instance, perfectly embodies the bizarre William Burroughs, even perfectly imitating his rather distinctive voice – that it becomes impossible to imagine any other actors embodying them. The cast is rounded out by Michael C. Hall, along with Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross as Ginsberg’s parents; Cross is a particular pleasant surprise, given very few scenes, but also proving himself to be a very capable dramatic actor.

While the murder of Kammerer is perhaps the crux of the film, Kill Your Darlings is about so much more than that. It’s about the young Allen Ginsberg discovering himself and his sexuality, the destructive Lucien Carr and his damaged relationship with the man he kills, and it is about a counterculture (here calling themselves “The New Vision”) finding its voice, even if Kammerer (played superbly by Michael C. Hall, bringing rage and desperation, and along with that some much needed humanity, to a poor and slightly twisted man) calls it “a literary revolution without writing a word.” This literary revolution, which would go on to be the Beat Generation, is captured perfectly through superb use of visual effects, with montages of debauchery, Ginsberg trying to find his creative voice and, through its occasional uses of flashback, the beginning of a distaste for convent ion, something the young writers would want more than anything else.

Its period craft is perfect, from the use of music – its jazz heavy score perfectly fits both the period and its people – to the costumes, even down to the ambience of the world that director John Krokidas and his team create, the tension constantly in the air perfectly suits its wartime setting.

Kill Your Darlings is obsessed with circles. Lucien says that life is an endless cycle of death and rebirth, as does Kammerer, so it seems only fitting to open with the killing of Kammerer, only to return to it later. Its meditations on grander themes – all of which seem to be pairs: life and death, love and hate, creation and destruction – are unfortunately few and far between, because when they are the focus, the script feels stronger, and less like a traditional biopic simply showing us the lives of these men.

The story of a young man and a counterculture in bloom, a meditation on self-destruction and the potential price one may need to pay for a creativity, a cry against traditional values, Kill Your Darlings, with its superb cinematography and production design, as well as one of the best ensembles so far this year, is nothing short of superb. The murder is just the tip of the iceberg.

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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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