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LFF 2017: Being Alive

There seems to be a visual contradiction running through Call Me By Your Name. It’s a film about intimacy, and sexuality. Yet it keeps some things at a distance. It favours long takes and images of stunning scenery to close-ups of faces in anguish or ecstasy. But that doesn’t make it cold, or unfeeling. If anything, it’s exactly the opposite, and the slight distance that the camera keeps is the only way to stop Call Me By Your Name from being utterly overpowering.

Call Me By Your Name is, simply put, full of things. This is true on a lot of the levels the film operates on. It’s full of longing glances and stolen moments, full of sculpture and literature and art, full of nature and food and music. But nothing feels like it’s there just to be there. Everything there feels alive. Call Me By Your Name isn’t just full of things, its full of life, it shows a world that’s lived in. Even discussions about etymology manage to relate to the world of the film. It might be a bit on the nose, with reference to things being “precocious” just as the camera presents us with a shot of Elio, who even gets described as precocious in a plot summary on IMDB. But the film never tries to be subtle, not really. It zooms in on the first moment of intimate contact between Elio and Oliver, a shot that, by now, seems all too familiar.

It makes sense for Call Me By Your Name to be unsubtle though. After all, there’s something about it that threatens to overpower. We see the way these characters live and feel through the things and people that they surround themselves with. Art of all kinds, from pop music to classical piano, is treated with paramount importance. As a way of seeing someone, a way of understanding them. There’s a scene where Elio plays the piano for Oliver, a version of something he played minutes earlier on an acoustic guitar. He plays variations on it, and one of them is tinged with rock and roll. As Elio plays it, we see him swept up in the feeling of the music, face contorting like Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison. There’s a similar moment, much later in the film, when Oliver is looking at slides of sculptures with Elio’s father. Oliver is being told about the way the sculptures curve, their ambiguity, and the way they “almost dare you to desire them.” Then Elio walks in, desiring Oliver as he desires the sculptures, which are really a way of desiring Elio.

The life of Call Me By Your Name isn’t all academic and artistic though. It exists on a physical level as well as an intellectual one. Elio watches Oliver dancing to a pop song, watches the way his body moves, the way he kisses the girl opposite him. The music is imbued with desire, like the sculptures or the piano music. Desire is at the heart of Call Me By Your Name, it pulses through the films veins. Everything in the film is felt by someone, every piece of art, every thump of a volleyball; every kiss, all of it is felt. There is a whole world of things in Call Me By Your Name, things that bring us closer to the characters than a camera ever could, closer than the longest close-up of Elio staring at Oliver ever could. The rapture we see Elio feel when he plays piano is more than enough, like the uninhibited way that Oliver dances. In spite of the physical distance the camera keeps us at, the lived-in quality of Call Me By Your Name gives us something much richer, something much more than physical closeness: intimacy.

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Golden Eagle: Foxcatcher’s American Dream

Foxcatcher might be Bennett Miller’s best film to date, and even if that’s not the case, it certainly seems to be his most thematically accomplished. Much like Capote and Moneyball before it, Foxcatcher appears to be fascinated with outsiders, people that are viewed as second best, never quite living up to the expectations put upon them. However, the thing that seems to set Foxcatcher apart from Miller’s previous efforts is the way that it considers the bigger picture; it treats these characters and their situations as a microcosmic picture of the American Dream, and the toxic reality of the situation, something more akin to an American Nightmare than anything else.

The idea of the American Dream, that anyone can get anything if they aspire to greatness and put in the work, is perfectly embodied in Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). The thing with Mark is, even though he wins gold medals, he still doesn’t feel like a champion, he doesn’t have that independence and self-assuredness you’d expect from a man who, theoretically at least, has the American Dream within his grasp. Well the reason for that is simple; in reality, the “American Dream” doesn’t create those things in people that never really seemed to have them. John du Pont (Steve Carell) says that Mark has spent his “whole life in [his] brother’s shadow,” and to be blunt, he’s right. In fact, du Pont appears to be a gateway for Mark to get that American Dream, the money and the independence and the sense that he, as a human being, is worth the fruits of his labour, especially given du Pont’s fascination on the nation’s need for role models, and making Team Foxcatcher “citizens of America.”

John Du Pont is another man who seems to have everything, but in reality appears to lead a rather hollow existence. He and Mark seem rather like kindred spirits, constantly reaching for something that moves further and further away from their grasp. Much like Mark, he lives in someone else’s shadow; the shadow of his mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), a woman from whom he needs to ask permission on where to put a trophy. John du Pont is a man that seems to embody the very notion of the American Dream, or at least someone that wants to. He pontificates on the role of the coach, considers himself to be a father and a mentor to his athletes, a role model for them, which is something that he thinks America needs. He’s so patriotic he even tries to get Mark to call him “Golden Eagle.”

So, if between them these two men have Olympic gold medals and a countless amount of money, then what’s the big deal? Why can’t these men get the ideal that seemed to be promised to them by their very nation? Because, unfortunately, the American Dream doesn’t work like that, getting these things, the money and the glory, doesn’t mean you have it all. Foxcatcher’s version of the American Dream is one that doesn’t stop, even once these people seem to have everything, and they need to have more. Du Pont has money, and therefore wants glory in the form of Team Foxcatcher; Mark has glory in the form of a gold medal and then gets money by working with du Pont, but at the same time, he needs more, he needs freedom from the shadow of his brother. That’s where the toxic, almost self-destructive reality of Foxcatcher’s version of the American Dream begins to emerge.

When Mark loses a round at the Olympic tryouts, he goes back to his hotel room, and in true Raging Bull fashion – a comparison I will admit I’m far from the first to make – destroys his room, binges on room service and then makes himself vomit. It isn’t easy to watch; first of all because its raw and brutal, and also because it shows what happens when these people can’t have it all: they become angry and destructive, something that leaves an even more bitter taste in the mouth given the futility of their efforts.

The interesting difference between du Pont and Mark (two men who seem remarkably, perhaps even frighteningly similar in their ways) is how they manifest their anger. Mark is self-destructive, but John takes his anger out on the world at large. Upon discovering no members of Team Foxcatcher are training in the gym, he hits Mark and calls him an “ungrateful ape.” So given the futility of their endeavours and the chilling results of those failures, why do John and Mark keep fighting for this American Dream? Well, because they have to; they seem to think that, as Americans this is their right and they fight tooth and nail for it. From the very beginning of the film, Mark seems in instil in his medal a certain a sense of grandeur, he says that “it isn’t just a medal, it’s what the medal represents,” and that’s what it is that these men are after, something greater, something that can’t be given corporeal form the way a medal or money can, and what could perhaps be called the tragedy of Foxcatcher is the lengths that they’ll go to try and get it, as well as what they’ll do to liberate themselves from failing to do so.

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The Drop Heard Around the World: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and consequences in superhero movies

 

Warning: This piece discusses plot points from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. There will be spoilers, read ahead at your own risk.

I think, all in all, it’s safe to say that the modern superhero movie has something of an aversion to consequences. This could be for a host of reasons, like just how much they can get away with showing in movies that will typically be, if you’ll forgive the Americanization, PG-13 rated. Another, perhaps more pertinent reason could be just how franchise-minded superhero movies have become in the wake of the first Iron Man film and the now infamous post-credits sequence where Nick Fury wants to talk to Tony about “the Avenger Initiative”. Marvel recently announced that they have plans for cinematic ventures spanning into the next decade, so, if you’re planning that far into the future, can you really afford to kill off major characters and have them stay dead? Probably not. The most ridiculous example of this is probably in The Avengers when Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson is run through and killed by Loki. To my knowledge – I don’t watch Agents of SHIELD, the TV series he was revived to participate in – his miraculous survival is yet to be explained, although, explanation or not, it does show a rather clear preference for what I suppose could be called the good of the franchise as opposed to long term impacts on the shared universe that these characters occupy.

This aversion to killing off major characters appears again in the latest of Captain America’s outings, The Winter Soldier. Within the first act – if you could call it that, given the film’s rather haphazardly episodic structure – Nick Fury is shot and killed in Steve Rogers’ apartment by the eponymous villain. One would think that this not only sets up a compelling motivation for Cap to catch the Winter Soldier (which it does), but also create emotional resonance for the characters (the Black Widow watching his surgery and eventual/alleged death is among one of the finest acted scenes in a Marvel film) and ripple effects for the rest of the characters, the ones who don’t feature in this particular feature. Alas, this is not the case; after many half-missions and escapes, Cap and the Black Widow are reunited with a splinter group of SHIELD agents who were aware of Hydra’s presence, and Agent Hill says that they’ll “want to see him first.” Lo and behold, Nick Fury has survived. Needless to say, I was far from impressed and couldn’t but ask why they didn’t let him stay dead, and of course I’ve mentioned the good of the franchise and actor contracts and the like, but still, it can’t help but feel like a slightly cheap move to create interesting drama and character development only to have it utterly invalidated an hour later, it’s a cop-out that almost reaches the abhorrent levels of Iron Man 3.

There is of course a rather clear exception to this rule, one that exists outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a film that is deliberately, in everything from aesthetic to characterisation to the presentation of violence, darker and edgier than other films of its genre. That film is, of course, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Much has already been written on the “importance” of The Dark Knight as a film, people have discussed its “transcendence” of generic constraints, the way it made comic book adaptations “serious” and the like. But those decidedly broader strokes are not my focus here, that lies on a more singular event, both within the film itself and, I suppose, the whole cinematic superhero canon. Rachel, the woman who gives Bruce Wayne a reason to give up the cowl, is killed and, more importantly, stays dead; there is no dramatic third act reveal where miraculously survived and the two of them ride off to the sunset in the Batmobile. On the other side of this spectrum, even within Nolan;s own Bat trilogy, wherein Batman somehow, with no explanation given, survives a nuclear explosion. It, much like the non-deaths of Coulson and Fury, is what could charitably be called a cop-out, but this one is worse because it goes against the precedent set in the film that came before it.

This talk of precedent is where The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes in. Now, first off, I’ll admit that this film has plenty of faults; it’s running time is unnecessarily inflated, it tries to juggle too many villains and plots (I mean, who really cares about Richard Parker?) and is tonally all over the place. However, in the film’s climactic sequence, all of those faults disappear as it goes against the precedent set by both the tonal lightness of the film that came before, but also Marvel’s cinematic tradition of not killing it’s characters. Now, I’ll admit that the Spider-Man films and Marvel Cinematic Universe films are produced by different companies, but that doesn’t make the departure from this norm any more shocking or satisfying. To put it bluntly, Gwen Stacy dies. In a strikingly faithful adaptation of a sequence from “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” the Green Goblin (who, I feel the need to single out in terms of performance, simply because Dane Dehaan hijacks the film with his incendiary presence) throws her from a high place (in the comic she’s thrown into a river), and, in spite of Spidey’s best efforts, she dies in that way that everybody dies when they’re thrown from a high place, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard.

Given the way the death of Gwen Stacey impacts our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler (until the still necessary sequel set-up that closes the movie), the question becomes, what’s next? – both for Spider-Man (as a character and film franchise) and comic adaptations in general. Given that perhaps the lightest in tone of all the major comic adaptations went so far as to kill it’s main female character, one can’t help but wonder if this is a step towards a brave new world where filmmakers aren’t afraid to kill their characters and have them stay dead. I suppose, in perhaps a rather morbid way, we can only hope.

 

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Review – Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Only Lovers Left Alive Movie Poster

 

It’s safe to say that supernatural love stories, particularly those about vampires, are something of a dime-a-dozen commodity; between that and the film’s lead characters being called Adam and Eve, Only Lovers Left Alive is perhaps rather likely to elicit more than a few eye-rolls at first glance. However, to look at this film with nothing more than a first glance is to do it a great disservice. Seemingly without a plot, and with a pace that could charitably be called deliberate, those who will go where Only Lovers Left Alive takes them are in for something that really is pretty special.

It’s not really about much of anything in the sense of a story, there are hints of plot developments that don’t really turn into major points, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Without focusing too much on events, or even the vampire myth in particular detail, Jarmusch can instead, rather ironically, shine a light on his leading duo, Adam and Eve, both of whom are played to perfection by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. As a pair of vampires who have been in love for centuries and married each other several times – Eve mentions that their third wedding was in the 1800’s – their chemistry is undeniable, and although both of their performances are understated, they play off of each other incredibly well, and there is never a dull moment when the pair are on screen together. However, their moments apart at the beginning of the film, when Eve is in Tangier and Adam is in Detroit, are just as important. From the beginning, a connection is formed between the two of them; as Jarmusch cuts between the two of them, it seems as if their distance doesn’t matter and what happens to Adam appears to have some kind of impact on Eve, particularly when we see the two of them imbibe with blood for the first time, with the movement of both their heads and the camera, their connection is established and crucial. The reason Eve decides to go to Detroit is out of fear that Adam is slipping into depression and emotionally decaying.

From that we get the first hint at something that the film could be “about”: decay. But not decay in a personal sense, but a wider, almost societal one. The humans, or “zombies” as Adam so pejoratively dubs them, seem to be doing something wrong if the condescension of this central pair is anything to go by. As they drive through Detroit late at night, it looks dystopian, devoid of life, and also strangely beautiful. That’s one of the things that Only Lovers Left Alive does so well, for all of its melancholy musings, there is a very real beauty at its heart. This owes a lot to the wonderful production design and cinematography, which helps to do what any good love story should do: seduce. With its lingering takes and decaying cities and abandoned apartments that somehow manage to be so enticing, the visual style of the film leads the audience in with a friendly and sensual hand as we enter Adam and Eve’s world.

The chemistry shared between Swinton and Hiddleston has already been mentioned, but it, and their performance should both be singled out for praise. It’s understated and minimal and there’s scarcely a raised voice in any of their lines of dialogue, yet between the minimalist script and poignant pauses they create emotion and a genuine sense that the pair have been together for centuries, with Eve mocking Adam for spending time with Shelly and Byron (who Adam claims was a “pompous ass”) in order to cheat her way into a winning a game of chess. They truly carry the film, which is what’s expected of them given that, at its core, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story, but it never overflows with saccharine sweet romanticism. As the pair dance together to “Trapped By A Thing Called Love” the film simply lets them, it doesn’t focus visually on some grand romantic movement or image, we are simply allowed to observe the pair together.

On the other end of the spectrum to these two brooding lovers is the mercurial Ava, played to perfection by a scene-stealing Mia Wasikowska. She appears for a few scenes, quite simply, to raise hell, and has a hell of a time doing it, dragging Adam and Eve out to see live music and bringing Ian (the one “zombie” that Adam can stand) back with her for what can only be described as an interesting night. John Hurt does a similar job of dominating the screen as Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Marlowe – bringing at once a darkly comic and world-weary sensibility that so perfectly encapsulates what the film is about: love and death.

It’s really not a film for everyone. It meanders, picks at plot strands that disappear as quickly as they came and sometimes, perhaps fittingly given the nature of the characters, has what can feel like a cooler-than-thou sensibility that many may immediately denounce as “hipster.” However, if you’re willing to surrender yourself to the film’s wicked charms for two hours, you’ll be treated to a love story that is beguiling, broody, dryly comic – Swinton’s delivery of one-liners like “Adam, it’s been 87 years” and “well that was visual” really are a treat – and, in its minimalism, emotionally affecting in a way that’s rather surprising. The vampiric nature of the characters seems rather fitting when describing Only Lovers Left Alive, it almost feels like the kind of film that one needs to be “turned” to become fully immersed in. I’ll admit that before Swinton and Hiddleston were sharing scenes I was a little wary of what the film was trying to do, but it slowly won me over, and by the time Wasikowska came kicking and screaming into the frame I was truly hooked. Those who will like this film will probably love it, and even for those who are unsure, I urge you to give it a shot and see if it turns you as it did with me.

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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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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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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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