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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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Review – Silver Linings Playbook

I don’t like traditional romantic comedies. They tend to be cliche and boring, and they seem to give the impression that all you need to do is fix yourself up a little and show some dedication in order to win your potential partner, which is a little how Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) feels after his stint in the mental institution at the beginning of Silver Linings Playbook.

Fortunately, this is not a traditional romantic comedy.

As I’ve mentioned, Pat just gets out of a mental institution after nearly beating his (ex) wife’s lover to death. But of course, on getting out, he’s going to exercise, read his ex’s high school syllabus that she’s teaching, and then, all will be well, right?

Well, not exactly.

On returning home, Pat is reunited with his parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver, playing a mother who is the very opposite of her Oscar nominated matriarch from Animal Kingdom, she does good work here with reasonably limited material), and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro, and I’ll be damned if this isn’t a comeback performance for the ages. But more on that later), who more or less welcome him with open arms, trying to accept his adjusting to life beyond the hospital, and his eccentricities, like his fascination with everything having a silver lining.

Of course, in his attempts to exercise in order to win his wife, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany is… Something, to put it mildly, a young widow adjusting to life without her husband, and her own depression, which manifested itself in the form of promiscuity after the death of her husband. Lawrence’s performance has been earning raves since the film came out, and rightly show, she brings empathy to the character, powerfully showing the ups and downs of her conditions, at times delicate, and at times incredibly volatile, her performance is excellent.

Earlier, I mentioned De Niro’s performance, describing it as a comeback for the ages, and I’d like to talk about that in a little more detail. De Niro has obviously always been a fantastic actor, and has the Oscars to prove it. But as of late, he’s been performing in slightly… Sub par projects, so to speak. But here, the material is excellent, and he is excellent in it. Pat Sr. also has a little mental eccentricity (OCD), like so many other characters in the film. He plays the disorder so well, the little nuances of adjusting things in the room so that they’re ‘just so’, and as well as playing him as well as the struggling father trying to help his son. De Niro, much like Lawrence, will likely be given an Oscar nomination come awards time, and this one is certainly well deserved.

One of the best things about the film is the energy that it has, it is constantly in motion, from the kinetic camerawork and editing to the sheer energy of the performances and the choreography (a dance competition plays a major part in the film’s plot). It’s always on the move, and this makes it a joy to watch. But of course, it’s not just high speed, laugh a minute comedy, there’s surprisingly powerful drama at work here, that the excellent script and performances bring out with ease.

Of course, it’s far from perfect, and in it’s final act, it does embrace those rom-com conventions that it stayed so far away from to begin with. But even then, it isn’t too glaring a fault, since the film has still embraced the oddball nature of it’s plot and characters, it doesn’t feel at all out of place for it to end the way it does.

All in all, this film is absolutely excellent. High energy direction and camerawork punctuate the great comedy, and the sheer quality of the cast allows the drama to blend in without a hitch. Expect nominations across the board, particularly for Lawrence and De Niro, who’s finally coming back to high quality acting, and doing so in spectacular fashion.

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Review – The Amazing Spider-Man

First of all, let the record show that I have not seen the Raimi Spider-Man film that came out in 2002, so I won’t be able to compare the two, and it also means that I go into this films with fairly fresh expectations although I do, like everyone else, know the origin of Spider-Man.

The Amazing Spider-Man tells that exact story, the origin of the eponymous webslinger, and I will say that, in spite of a handful of flaws, it does so rather well. It succeeds most admirably by focusing on the man (played excellently by Andrew Garfield) as much as it does on the mask, and the strength of his performance, as well as the one given by Emma Stone and Gwen Stacey, is the anchor that the film uses.

As well as the two leads, the cast includes Rhys Ifans as Curt Connors, and a particularly good Martin Sheen as the iconic Uncle Ben, who uses his natural charisma and presence and excellent comic timing (which truly shines with one liners like “nobody likes your meatloaf”) to craft a memorable performance with much less screen time than the other principle characters.

However, one thing that the film suffers from, particularly during the first hour, is incredibly poor pacing. Anyone that saw the trailers knows that it hints on one of the major plot points being the ‘mystery’ behind the disappearance of Peter’s parents. This, to put it bluntly, does not appear in the film, and it causes major issues in the first half and the prologue, as well as rendering some of the dialogue somewhat redundant.

Also, for a big budget film, the CGI is surprisingly average, especially for the villainous Lizard, who looks surprisingly underwhelming. This isn’t at all helped by having Ifans speak while playing him. I simply couldn’t take that seriously at all, which is a shame because The Lizard was an interesting chocie of villain, and with some better CGI could have been pulled off more effectively.

As I mentioned before, the leading performances are wonderful – Garfield captures the wisecracking wit of Peter Parker just as well as he does with his isolation and endearing awkwardness. Stone plays the love interest well, and with her natural talent manages to elevate Gwen Stacey to more than just a girl next door. This is where perhaps the best element of the film lies – in the romance at its core.

It’s not often that I praise romantic relationships in films – I think they’re rarely done well and fall prey to boring pitfalls, which this one, impressively didn’t. With their wonderful screen chemistry, you genuinely care for the two of them, both individually and as a pair, and the awkwardness of their encounters early on to the development of their relationships is utterly joyous to watch.

Other than a heavy handed score that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and totally loses its effect, the film is technically executed to an incredibly high standard. This is particularly true of the cinematography, which creates stunning shots of New York, fluid camerawork for the entertaining action sequences to truly exhilarating point of view shots of Spider-Man webswinging across the city, as Garfield revels in the discovery of his characters powers.

Yes, it’s flawed, and the first half leaves rather a lot to be desired, but it’s a damn well made movie and it was thoroughly entertaining, helped in its weaker passages by excellent lead performances. From its adrenaline pumping action sequences to a heartfelt and surprisingly well executed romance, The Amazing Spider-Man is a thoroughly enjoyable film. But how it stacks up to the Raimi one is not for me to comment on.

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Review – Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is the first Wes Anderson film that I’ve seen, and from what I’ve been told of his body of work, it’s a good place to start – It has the sweetness and visual style that he’s known for as a director. And based on my reaction to this, I’d probably love the rest of his work.

It tells, quite simply, a love story, about two pre-teens, Sam (Jared Gilman, who is endearing and sweet and does well with the idea that all of the young characters are wise far beyond their years) and Suzy (Kara Hayward – who is, in brief, very tall, and very talented) who run away together on the fictional island of New Penzance before a storm hits the island (all of this is revealed by a narrator early on, who is used sparsely and surprisingly well throughout the film) . The year is 1965.

The two leads, who both make their screen debuts in this film, are excellent, bringing wit and charm to the two young lovers. Of course, the cast has an all star ensemble that also yields some excellent performance, particularly Edward Norton as the militaristic scout leader and an underused Tilda Swinton who plays, quite literally, Social Services.

Of course the film has a very striking and unique visual sensibility in terms of both costume and set, which manages to suggest, as well as it’s period, a certain air of timelessness to the film, with bright coloured clothes and locations occupying the majority of the screen most of the time.

Kara Hayward as Suzy

The film’s most polarizing quality seems to be how, for want of a better word, sweet it is. From it’s visuals to it’s young romantic characters, it immediately gives off a vibe that could be considered quite ‘twee’, but it works wonderfully, and adds an excellent sense of charm and an odd reality to the romance that is at the center of the story.

The script is excellent, and one of my favourites so far this year. It mangges to accomplish a great many things – it is dramatic and romantic, as well as having an excellent sense of humour throughout it, which sometimes veers into black comedy surprisingly well, riffing on the idea that these young characters are much older than one would expect, throwing them in ‘grown up’ situations, while all of the adult characters remain totally useless and incapable of finding the children.

From the sweetness of its central romance to the visual charm that is present through the entire film, Moonrise Kingdom, with its eccentric ensemble and excellent lead performances, is simply a delight to watch. It won’t be for everyone as its perhaps to ‘twee’, and some of the black comedy certainly won’t work for all viewers, but if you like it, and certainly if you like it as much as I did, then you will adore it. A joy to watch from beginning to end, it is, quite simply, a film to fall in love with.

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