Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2009)


6. Life During Wartime

With “Palindromes,” Todd Solondz revisited the characters of “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” in a round about sort of way. For his next film, the director would continue this referential tone. “Life During Wartime,” originally known as “Forgiveness,” is a direct sequel to “Happiness,” probably Solondz’ second most popular film. A sequel to such a film is an interesting propositions. What would the dysfunctional cast of “Happiness’ be doing a decade later? Yet Todd would put his own stamp on the entire concept of sequels. “Life During Wartime,” presumably not named after the Talking Heads song, receive slightly better reviews then “Palindromes,” won a few awards, and was the first of Solondz’ films to be accepted into the prestigious Criterion Collection. This is an enthusiasm for the film that I can not share. The movie finds the director in a very odd mood.

Roughly a decade after the events of “Happiness,” we pick back up with the three Jordan sisters. Joy continues to be unlucky in love and optimism has started to fail after years of life trampling on her. She has since married Allen, the troubled obscene phone caller from “Happiness,” but the marriage is collapsing. Joy is quite literally haunted by her relationship failures of the past. Helen has retreated from the family, living in California as an award winning television writer. Trish, meanwhile, has joined her mom in Florida. She has met a man named Harvey and is impressed by his normalcy, rushing into marriage with him. Trish’s youngest son, Timmy, is old enough now that he’s beginning to have questions about his absent father. When he discovers that his father is a convicted pedophile, and has recently been released from prison, Timmy begins to have some troubling questions about life and whether it’s possible to forgive and forget.

Even though “Life During Wartime” is a sequel to “Happiness” and features most of the main characters, it features none of the same actors. This does not appear to be a financial choice, an issue of not being to get the same actors back, but rather a creative decision. As in “Palindrome,” Solondz is switching characters’ ethnicity and appearance around to affect audiences’ perspective of them. Allen was originally played by Caucasian, overweight, and schmuck-ish Philip Seymour Hoffman in. In “Life During Wartime,” the same character is played by Michael K. Williams who is - if you hadn't noticed - black, tall, lean, and intimidating. Yet Solondz did not seem content to simply revisit his “Happiness” cast. “Life During Wartime” also brings back a few character from “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” It might go unnoticed at first. Trish’s new suitor is named Harvey but, we soon discovered, has the last name Wiener. As in Dawn Wiener. Harvey’s oldest son is Mark, seeming to imply that this is, indeed, Dawn’s dad. Yet they act completely different, making me wonder if they’re even meant to be the same characters. Either this whole practice is some sort of meta commentary on how the viewer interrupts fictional characters or Solondz just likes using the same names.

The Jordan family has undergo some changes in the years since “Happiness” but, in other ways, remain the same. The film’s opening mirrors that of “Happiness,” with Joy at dinner with a man. He gifts her a gold ashtray that is embossed with her name. Joy continues to assume the best of people, finding work as a councilor for rehabilitating convicts. This seems to explain why she’s married the troubled Allen. In the opening minutes, we see that Joy has forgiven Allen of countless trespasses. He has a history of drug abuse and petty crime. As the scene continues, we discover that Allen has not quit his habit of making obscene phone calls. Years of continued abuse from the world has worn down Joy’s optimism. She’s a shell of her former self. Instead of strumming her guitar and singing about happiness, she writes a song about whether it’s possible to forgive those who hurt us. Squeaky-voiced Shirley Henderson has stepped in for Jane Adams and, appropriately, seems far more frail in the part.

“Life During Wartime” is also about the past coming back to haunt us in unexpected ways. An interesting choice Solondz made was to bring back the character of Andy. Played by Jon Lovitz in “Happiness,” Andy killed himself after his final, disastrous date with Joy. Despite being dead for years, he returns as a vision or a ghost. The most lyrical sequence in the film has Joy wandering out of her sister’s home in the middle of the night, walking across town in her nightgown. She eventually comes to an all-night T.G.I. Friday’s style restaurant. The cheery greeter seems oblivious to Joy’s gloomy mood, one of the bigger laughs in the film. While waiting in the booth, Andy first appears to her. What starts as a touching heart-to-heart between the two, Joy wondering what death is like and Andy regretting his LaserDisc collection, soon degrades into a rougher argument. Andy reappears several times, attempting to force himself on Joy while she stays at Helen’s house, or putting the moves on her in a synagog. Later on, Joy has ghostly encounters with the other men she has lost. It’s all a not-too-subtle metaphor for past regrets and pain lingering in our lives, never to be resolved or closed. Replacing Lovitz is Paul Reubens, another primarily comedic actor taking on a dramatic part. Reubens is fine when being pathetic or sleazy but can’t summon the anger Lovitz delivered as Andy.

Easily the most despicable character in “Happiness” was Lara Flynn Boyle’s Helen, the most successful sister with the most rotten soul. Helen returns here, now played by Ally Sheedy. Helen hasn’t change much. She now lives in L.A. as a screenwriter with multiple Emmys, living in a McMansion with her own personal sushi chief. She remains endlessly pretentious, making obnoxious, grand statements about poetry and writing. Despite Joy’s evident distress, Helen continues to go on about her charmed life, acting as if she’s the one with the problems. She’s condescending to her sister and even bitches her out a few times. The character’s chapter concludes with her, once again, having enthusiastic sex with a boyfriend off-screen. In “Happiness,” the Helen character was a brutal critique of would-be artist type. Her appearance here is far more mean-spirited. Even Sheedy’s limitless charm is strained as the odious Helen.

But what has Trish been up to? She’s the sister the film spends the most time on. At first, the character seems better off. She’s living in Florida, has reconnected with her mother, and re-dedicated herself to her kids. She seems to have a genuine connection with Harvey. Yet the cracks begin to show quickly. She praises Harv for his “normalcy.” She has taught her youngest daughter to pop pills when she’s upset. (This causes the girl to develop an odd fear of baby carrots, another one of the film’s few laughs.) Most damningly, Trish has told her children that their father is dead. All the cast members need to reconcile with their past but Trish needs it the most. She hasn’t changed much over the years. When she meets with Joy for dinner, she continues the same old habit of passive-aggressively tearing down her sister’s accomplishments, before back-tracking on her behavior. But the years have been hard on Trish too. After a gymnastic round of old-people-sex with Harvey, she reveals that she doesn’t really care about her kids or her sisters. She leaves the film unchanged, having learned the least. Great character actress Allison Janney is the only improvement over “Happiness'” cast, a major upgrade over the vaporous Cynthia Stevenson.

If “Life During Wartime” can be said to have a central protagonist though, it’s young Timmy. Last seen as an obnoxious, screaming child, Timmy has now evolved into an observant thirteen year old. He discovers that his dad is still alive when kids at school tease him for having a convicted child molester for a dad. This reveal is what starts him on a quest towards forgiveness. He wonders out loud, bouncing his opinions off his mom and Harvey, if it’s possible to forgive someone for a great wrong. He explicitly compares pedophiles to the 9/11 terrorists. During the course of the film, he makes his own mistakes and becomes the one seeking forgiveness. After accidentally accusing Harvey of molestation, he seeks forgiveness from the robotic, possibly autistic Mark. As in “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” concludes that true forgiveness is difficult to achieve and wonders if it even matters. Dylan Riley Snyder is excellent in the part, showing a range of pathos and understanding beyond his year.

Perhaps the most interesting subplot in the film revolves around Bill, now free from prison and attempting to reconnect with his estranged family. Bill carries his mistakes on his shoulders. He admits that he struggles with his deviant desires every day, how it’s always a challenge. He has idyllic reoccurring dreams about seeing Timmy by a pool, the footage blurry and strange. At first, this appears to be a pedophilic daydream. Later, Timmy turns to reveal that he is holding a tulip, revealed earlier in the film as a symbol of normalcy. Another bit of too-on-the-nose symbolism is Bill’s habit of chewing on gumdrops. Gumdrops, the kind of candy a stereotypical child molester would lure children with. He pops them like pills, seemingly as a way to hold back his dark desires. Bill finds the empty home of his family in New Jersey, pausing at the pictures on the wall. He finds the room of his oldest son, Billy, who seems to have developed an interest in punk music and has headed to Oregon for college. Father and son reunite by the film’s end, having an intense conversation in the boy’s dorm room. Though Bill typically stumbles, disturbing his son, Billy makes it clear that he’s willing to rebuild a relationship with his dad. By then, it’s too late. Bill disappears like one of Joy’s ghosts. Dylan Baker in “Happiness” was more like a creepy sleazeball. Ciaran Hinds is sadder, older, more experienced and more burdened by his mistakes.

While “Life During Wartime” features some strong performances and a few stirring emotional moments, the film is seriously hampered by some of the worst dialogue of Solondz’ career. This is unusual, as the director’s scripts are usually very naturalistic and well-timed. The dialogue here is, instead, overly didactic. The film’s themes of forgiveness and acceptance are flatly laid out in dialogue and conversation. This is most blatant during a mostly unnecessary conversation Bill has with a woman in a singles’ bar. The character, who claims to be a horrible person and a monster, talks about whether or not she’s worthy of forgiveness. There are several moments like this, the film hitting the viewer over the head with its ideas and concepts. Solondz has never exactly been subtle but it’s especially egregious here.

The film also has an unusual, uncertain political subtext. Trish’s Jewish heritage is played up. One of the reasons she’s dating Harvey is because he supports Israel. Helen’s home is decorated with a large print of a Israeli tank, adorned with a big Star of David. The September 11th terrorist attacks are referenced repeatedly. Solondz not only seems to be discussing forgiveness on a personal level but on a geo-political level. Should America have forgive the terrorists for their actions? Or were their actions, as Harvey and Trish say, unforgivable? And should the world now forgive America for our rash actions following the attacks, sinking the country into an unending Middle Eastern conflict? These themes seemingly never build to anything and instead float around the main story, never solidifying into a coherent concept.

“Life During Wartime” moves beyond Solondz’ usual New Jersey locations. The film mostly takes place in Florida. In accordance with this setting, the film is painted in washed-out, tropical colors. One moment has strange blue and green lights reflecting on Billy’s face as he stands outside and talks. At first, it provides an interesting change of scenery for the filmmaker. By the end, the audience has grown tired of the sea-sick green tone. This is a shame since “Life During Wartime” is, otherwise, beautifully photographed.

The film’s ending is blunt and sudden, leaving several characters’ fates up to the viewer. (Unless Solondz makes a third film in another ten years, transforming “Happiness” into an unlikely trilogy.) While the director never looses sympathy for these troubled souls, the treatment of poor Joy borders on sadistic. As a sequel to “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” proves a mostly unnecessary trip. The film builds upon the original in some interesting ways but never justifies its existence. The tone is dour and there are few laughs, making the film a depressing slog. It’s a stumble for Solondz, whose films have all been varying degrees of excellent up to this point. [Grade: C+]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2004)


5. Palindromes

Todd Solondz’ career-spanning interest in trangressive topics continued with 2004’s “Palindromes.” The film attracted some controversy for its treatment of hot button topics like abortion, child molestation, teen pregnancy, and religious fanaticism, all in a post-9/11 America. The script was off-putting enough that Solondz financed the film out of his own pocket. The resulting film received some attention for being a loose sequel to “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” still Solondz’ most beloved movie, and its decision to cast different actors as one character. The reviews were mostly negative and the film isn’t talked about much today, outside of fans of the director. Many of whom, like myself, found it touching and emotionally devastating.

The story begins with the funeral of Dawn Weiner, who committed suicide during adulthood. Presented at the funeral is a young cousin of Dawn’s, Aviva. She’s traumatized by the idea of anyone being so lonely and unloved that they would kill themselves. At that moment, she decides to have as many babies as possible, as soon as possible. Pregnancy occurs when she’s thirteen years old, after a brief rutting session with the son of a family friend. Aviva’s parents insist she get an abortion while Aviva desperately wants to keep the child. Eventually, she gives into her parents’ pressure but, unbeknownst to the girl, the surgery goes wrong, robbing her of her ability to have kids at all. Afterwards, she runs away from home, encountering many different people on her quest to be loved and become pregnant.

“Palindromes” was met with some bafflement, and even accused of gimmickry, for casting eight different actors as Aviva. They ranged wildly in age, skin color, and even gender. At story’s beginning, Aviva is a little black girl. When she’s a little older, at the plot’s proper start, she’s played by a white brunette, the same age as the character was written. And then she becomes a redheaded girl of the same age. Before too long, Aviva is a young boy, an older black woman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Though the film frequently comes back to Aviva as the young brunette, what we can assume to be her actual appearance, it switches freely between the different actors. The actors all wear the character’s trademark outfit of acid-washed jeans and mid-drift baring top, signaling the character as an awkward teen naively hoping to explore her sexuality. The purpose behind this choice is evident in the film’s title. Aviva’s name is a palindrome, as is Bob, the molester. The boy who gets her pregnant begins the film calling himself Judah. By the end, he is played by a different actor and now refers to himself as Otto, also a palindromic name. At both the beginning and end, Aviva is played by the young black girl. In case the audience doesn’t get it, Solondz has a character flatly explain his belief that nobody really changes in life, that people are the same back and forth, from beginning to end. Through Avivia’s journey, she takes on many guises and feels many different things but, at the end, she has the same desires she did at the beginning.

The motivating factor behind Aviva’s journey is the same one that characterizes most of Solondz’ protagonists: A desperate need to be loved. She focuses on pregnancy as the answer to this problem. That if she has lots and lots of kids, she’ll never be without someone to love her. Anybody who has seen a Todd Solondz film before knows that parenthood is no guarantee of happiness or assurance of understanding. This thought never occurs to Aviva, who pursues her goal single-mindedly. It’s a doomed path, literally for her since she can never have children. She doesn’t know this which leads a tragic, unbelievably sad undertone to the story. This is brought to the surface at the devastating end. Aviva repeats the steps that brought her to this spot in the first place, looks into the camera, smiles, and assures us that she’ll get pregnant this time. Because it’s so incredibly sad, “Palindromes” lacks most of the humor of the director’s previous films. It’s a depressing watch and sends the viewer on an emotional journey.

Maybe the reason Aviva is so misguided in her journey to become a parent is because her parents aren’t very good people. They are different then the emotionally cold, sexually disturbed, or mentally manipulative parents seen in the last three films. Aviva’s mom and dad, played throughout by Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur, truly want the best for their daughter. However, they, the mom especially, make a few fatal mistakes early on. When explaining to her daughter how different she is from Dawn, Mom makes a point to say that Dawn wasn’t just unhappy but unattractive too. When trying to make her understand that having a child at thirteen is a bad idea, Mom talks about how she had an abortion once too, how it allowed her to spoil Aviva with lavish gifts. The parents seem to confuse physical beauty with real beauty and material possessions with worth. This is made totally clear when Mom says that a growing fetus is like a tumor. Or when Dad forces his way into his daughter’s bedroom to take her to the abortion clinic. When reunited with Mom and Dad near the end, neither seem to grasp why these things happened to Aviva, what she learned from them, and why they are the tiniest bit responsible for it.

As in “Happiness,” Solondz treats the topic of pedophilia and child molestation with a blunt matter-of-factness. Following the botched abortion, Aviva runs away from home. After being picked up her cousin Mark, she sneaks into the back of a truck. The trucker takes her to a hotel and the two have sex, the man sodomizing the young girl. It’s not a forceful act, as Aviva welcomes his actions. The next day, she’s overjoyed. An upbeat pop song plays on the soundtrack as Aviva takes a shower and walks around the hotel. The man has left her, deflating the girl’s spirit. Avivia is so desperate to be loved that she even welcomes the advances of an adult man taking advantage of her.

Rejected, lost and alone, Aviva wanders until she comes to the home of Mama Sunshine, a conservative Christan woman who operates a home for runaways and abandoned children.  Here, “Palindormes” enters its strangest chapter. She presents a phony story about her parents dying during the September 11th attacks, of a kindly and recently passed grandmother, and of an abusive foster home. The kindly older woman accepts this story at face value, taking the girl in. At breakfast the next day, everyone in Mama Sunshine’s thrown-together family introduces themselves. Each child has some sort of issue: Albino and blind, missing limbs, epileptic, cancer, mentally afflicted in some way. One older boy appears to be a closeted homosexual. These characters challenge Aviva’s ideas of physical perfection. Everyone is so happy, introducing themselves like the opening credits of an old sitcom. Even the dog, with the sickingly cute moniker of “Cuddles,” gets an introduction. Aviva even seems to draw the romantic attention of Peter Paul, one of her nerdy housemates. She joins the kids as they make music, feeling accepted for the first time in her life.

Of course, there’s a dark side to the seemingly idyllic Mama Sunside. It’s hinted at early when Peter Paul takes Aviva to a junkyard in the woods, where aborted fetuses are thrown out. The boy mentions that Mama Sunshine takes the children there sometimes, showing them the remains. The children sing songs about how every life is sacred. Mama seems to emotionally manipulate Aviva into staying much the same way her parents did. Soon enough, we see that Mama Sunshine is part of a group of religious zealots that blackmail recovering child molesters into assassinating abortion doctors. They are not even as welcoming to Aviva as they first appear, secretly calling her a “whore” and a “slut.” This is prickly subject matter and Solondz, naturally, holds nothing back. Though “Palindromes” obviously condemns murderers and bigots, it acknowledges that these are people too. Their togetherness and certainty in belief can be inviting. These are real human beings, not straw men.

One of “Palindromes’” true weaknesses is an over-reliance on coincidence. The trucker and pedophile the family is using is Bob, the same trucker and pedophile Aviva crossed earlier. The doctor that’s been targeted for death is the same doctor that performed Aviva’s abortion. Without this narrative shortcuts, we wouldn’t have the incredibly emotional conclusion to that storyline. Aviva insists that she’s in love with Bob. She eggs him on to murder the doctor, wanting revenge for her unborn baby. This all goes horribly wrong, leading cops to the motel where they’re staying. Aviva and Bob have a heart-to-heart, the pedophile wondering out loud how often a man can be reborn. She begs him to stay, both having pipe dreams of marriage and happiness. It doesn’t end well.

Most stories would end there. But “Palindromes” continues on a little further. We see Aviva’s life returning to normal. Her parents attempt to make her forget about her life on the road, throwing her a birthday party. She insist on inviting Mama Sunshine and her family. They don’t show. Who does show is Mark, Dawn Wiener’s super-nerd older brother. Matthew Faber reprises his role from “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” appearing even skinnier and rattier. Mark has been accused by Missy, who fans will remember as Dawn’s pampered younger sister, of molesting her daughter. Aviva convinces Mom to invite him, hoping to strike up a relationship with another pedophile. Mark isn’t a molester and instead delivers a depressing monologue, justifying the film’s title and preparing the audience for the lyrical, crushing finale.

Solondz mostly cast the film with unknowns. Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, both more character actress then big stars, are the closest the film has to name actors. Valerie Shusterov codifies Aviva as a character, confirming her awkwardness. Rachel Corr and Shyana Levine honestly look enough like Shusterov that I thought they were all the same actress on my first viewing. Hannah Freiman, with her fiery red hair, plays the girl during her most vulnerable moments. Sharon Wilkins is the large black woman that plays Aviva during the Mama Sunshine scenes, who got most of the press when the film was new. Her appearance betrays her incredibly soft, gentle voice, perfect for expressing the character’s fear and uncertainty. Of the other cast, Stephen Adly Guirgis is heartbreaking as the remorseful pedophile Bob. He also creates the film’s few laughs, when attempting to get the story straight about why he’s hanging out with a thirteen year old girl.

As in every Solondz film, music plays a huge role in “Palindromes.” The director holds back on his usual habit of contrasting the depressing action with up-beat pop music until the end credits. Instead, a meloncholey, lonely, and longing score commands most of the film. Nathan Larson and Nina Persson provide most of the music. “Lullaby,” a simple but sad number composed of hummed words, is repeated several times. It’s most effective use comes during an otherwise silent moment when Aviva, now played by a little boy, wanders the countryside. She eventually finds a child’s toy boat by the river. As she floats down the stream, a pure white lamb walks on the shore, symbolizing her as an innocent in a troubled world. Another notable song is “Up on a Cloud,” which features incredibly sad lyrics, and bolsters several transition scenes.

“Palindromes” might be the most difficult film Todd Solondz has ever made, which is really saying something. Its subject matter is unpleasant and its approach is bracing and harrowing. Unlike his other features, there’s little humor and no ironic detachment to soften the blow. This also makes it his truest and most humanistic film. For those willing to approach its harshness and heartbreak, “Palindromes” is powerful and unforgettable. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2001)


4. Storytelling

The twin critical success of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness” made Todd Solondz a hot name in the world of indie filmmaking. Though both of those films were divisive, both received awards and recognition for their actors and Solondz himself. His fourth movie, “Storytelling,” was less well-received. The director was criticized for indulging in the same topics his previous features focused on: Suburban dysfunction, perverse sexuality, and controversial topics. Maybe the critical establishment felt he was repeating himself, though it does seem odd to me to criticize someone for doing what made them famous. If the “Storytelling” critical reappraisal has to start somewhere, let it start with me.

“Storytelling’s” opening credits are displayed on plain shapes in bright, contrasting colors, both against each other. This is a clue to the film’s story structure, that of two separate tales that comment on each other mostly through how different they are. The first tale is called “Fiction.” Vi, a creative writing major with bright pink hair, is currently dating a fellow student with cerebral palsy. After a story he wrote about their relationship is brutally critiqued by the stern writing professor, the boy breaks up with Vi. Upset, she seeks solace in a bar, where she meets up with the same professor. The two head back to his apartment, the man taking advantage of the girl. Her attempts to accuse him the next day in class go horribly wrong.

The first segment of “Storytelling” has the director, once again, telling a difficult story. It’s a film without moral certainties, as all of its primary characters are, in different ways, terrible people. It’s apparent from the first scene that Vi is only sleeping with the afflicted Marcus because it makes her feel better. By being with someone who is socially ostracized, she’s making herself more “special.” Marcus, played by a barely recognizable Leo Fitzpatrick of “Kids” and “Bully” fame, sees through this fa├žade, calling Vi out on it. Her reaction is not to patch up the relationship but to go and hook up with another guy, a large black man who happens to be both her professor and a Pulitzer Prize winner. When talking with Marcus, she says the professor’s writing isn’t that good. When talking to her professor, she claims to be a big fan. That’s not the only way “Storytelling” criticizes a certain college-age mindset. The other students in the creative writing class tend to follow the pack, parroting whatever everyone else is saying. After Marcus' story, everyone else in the group names off famous writers with some sort of condition concluding, hilariously, with “Updyke has psoriasis." After Vi’s story at the end, the crowd similarly piles on negative feedback, the criticism growing more severe, building to accusations of racism and misogyny.

If “Storyelling” hates college hipsters, it hates sadistic college professors more. Played by intimidating character actor Robert Wisdom, Mr. Scott is cruel. The way he cuts into Marcus at the beginning of the segment goes far pass a teacher’s responsibility and into bullying. Scott clearly enjoys abusing his female students, all of them young, thin, and white. After going back to his apartment, Vi discovers a collection of photos of her classmates, nude and some of them tied up. When she attempts to leave, he commands her to disrobe. Once she’s nude, she stands before the large man, the film drawing attention to how small and frail Vi is in comparison to him. The situation quickly escalates to rape. The character is monstrous and, as unlikable as Vi can be, the audience’s sympathy lies with her.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a Todd Solondz film if it didn’t generate some controversy. The sex scene between Vi and her teacher was scrutinized by the MPAA, who threatened the film with the commercially nonviable NC-17 rating, which Solondz willfully surrendered on “Happiness.” Solondz’  response to this was to covered the actor’s thrusting backside with a red square, “Censored!” written on it. The MPAA bulked at this too, claiming they don’t censor films. They let him keep the big red square though. The uncensored version appears on the DVD and, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, hundreds of celebrity sex scene websites. Though I can’t imagine anyone jerking off to a moment as depressing and uncomfortable as this. I guess some people really want to see Selma Blair naked…

That moment brings “Storytelling’s” uncomfortable racial commentary to the forefront. While in the middle of the task, the professor commands VI to say some very impolite and racially charged words. After fictionalizing the previous night’s events, and reading it to the class, the students heap on the inflammatory feedback, in a way that would put Tumblr to shame. The professor’s student aide, who also is seemingly sleeping with him, puts the finest point upon it. She accuses Vi of being enamored of the tired stereotypes concerning black men and the professor, having realized this, called her on it. This is true but doesn’t make what he did any less despicable. Solondz isn’t commenting on race so much as he is on social perceptions of race.

The second portion of “Storytelling” is entitled “Non-Fiction.” It follows a would-be documentary filmmaker, and current shoe salesman, named Toby Oxman. He scrounges up grant money for a documentary about the American teenager. He finds a kid named Scooby, a stoner with no direction or goals in his life, beyond a vague desire to become a late night talk show host. Scooby’s tyrannical father is forcing him to take the SATs, to go to college. His young brother is a jock who accuses him of being gay because Scooby’s a vegetarian. His mother, focused on the family’s Jewish background, and his obnoxious youngest brother, are clueless. Toby documents it all, uncertain of how to approach his own material, if he wants his film to be funny or not.

As the title makes apparent, “Storytelling” is a film about making fiction and contains the meta elements that premise implies. Toby Oxman is patterned after the director himself. He has Solondz’ wire-brush hair, thick framed glasses, slouching demeanor, and nasally voice. Both started out as actors, took an extended break, and came back to write and direct. Solondz’ films have been criticized for mining the problems of mentally broken people for laughs. “Storytelling” is no different. Scooby’s nonchalant attitude to everything around him and his parents’ clueless reactions provide plenty of chuckles. However, while editing the documentary, Toby is uncertain of the direction he wants to take. During one conversation with his editor, Toby says he wants people to take the film seriously. During another editing session, he says he wants people to be entertained by the movie, finding it just a little bit funny. During a thrown together preview screening, the audience laughs uproariously at a rough cut of the doc. Solondz’ films are always about the humor and the horror of human foibles. It’s interesting to see that he too is uncertain about that balance. The big difference between Todd Solondz’ movies and Toby Oxman’s is that Todd’s films are about fictional characters. Toby’s is about real people. The movie within the movie is called “American Scooby,” which seems to poke slight fun at two other films. The first of which is “American Beauty,” which “Storytelling” parodies via a sequence focused on a blade of grass floating through the air. The second is “American Movie,” a documentary that’s also controversy for whether or not it’s embracing or making fun of its subject. To further this reference, Mike Schank, Mark Borchardt’s sidekick from “American Movie,” has a small role as Toby’s incompetent camera man.

At the center of the movie’s documentary is Scooby, the dead-eyed oldest son of the Livingston family. Scooby is introduced during a session with his guidance councilor, who quickly becomes agitated by the boy’s lack of direction in life. Or his interest in anything, for that matter. Back in high school, I knew a lot of kids like Scooby, rudderless teens with little interest in learning and even less ambition. (Most of them work in construction now.) Scooby, who partakes occasionally in drugs, dreams of being a late night talk show host but would settle for any level of fame. This is nothing more then a pipe dream though, as Scooby emphatically doesn’t want to go to college and has no drive to pursue anything. He’s like every teenager, really. He wants validation but he doesn’t want to do any work to achieve it. (“Storytelling” was made before the rise of reality TV and YouTube made it possible for any soulless bastard to achieve some sort of fame.) Scooby is so disinterested in the world around him that he lets a neighboring kid perform oral sex on him. Not because he’s gay, though there’s a suggestion that he might be, but because he sees no reason not to. Despite his seeming lack of interest in anything, Scooby is capable of weirdly observant insight. While his mom is attempting to deliver some sort of moral about the Holocaust, Scooby correctly chimes in that the family wouldn’t exist without Hitler. Some of the rambling monologues he delivers to Toby’s camera are weirdly prescient. He’s self-aware enough to be hurt by Toby’s final film but also grateful that he’s finally achieved the fame he desires. Mark Webber is so good in the role that I’m not entirely convinced he wasn’t a genuinely clueless teenager the production just scooped up.

Naturally, because this is a Solondz film, “Storytelling” is also a story of suburban dysfunction. The Livingston family is clearly well-to-do, owning a big home in a nice New Jersey neighborhood. The family has enough cash that even an obvious burn-out like Scooby has his own car. Dad has a great job while Mom calls for donations to the local synagog. Of course, it’s all rotten beneath the surface. John Goodman has been somewhat typecast as big friendly father figures. His role as the Livingston patriarch not only subverts that image but taps into the immense power Goodman has as a performer. The father occasionally goes into bellowing rages, shouting over everyone else, usually Scooby. The mother spews empty platitudes. The middle son, Brady, is a proto-jock and a douchebag, with his frosted blonde tips, pastel tee-shirts, and bubblegum girlfriend. After accusing his older brother of being gay, he plays in a football game, where the couch yells homoerotic commands at them and everyone stares at the other guys’ asses. Pointedly, during his first ball game, Brady is tackled, hard enough to cause irreparable brain damage, leaving him in a vegetative state. This latest trauma puts even more pressure on Scooby.

Except for the youngest son, Mikey. Mikey is well-dressed, robotic, and painfully indifferent to other people’s suffering. Despite being no older then eight, he’s already planning for college. After Brady’s brain injury, Mikey successfully hypnotizes his father into praising him, at the expense of everyone else in the family. He frequently says insensitive, selfish things. Though he may be young, the film seems to agree that the kid is just a prick. Most glaring is his treatment of Consoulo, the family’s put-upon maid. Anytime the camera is inside the house, Consoulo is always visible in the background, performing some demeaning, menial busy work. Mikey pesters her with clueless, often cruel questions, which she dutifully answers. The most heartbreaking moment in “Storytelling” occurs when Mikey goes into Consoulo’s room, late at the night. The woman is crying. Her grandson has just been executed on death row. Mikey reassures Consoulo that her grandson probably deserved to die and then tells her to clean up the juice he spilled. The kid can’t even be bothered to pronounce her name right. Mikey then convinces his father to fire her because she’s “lazy.” The denouncement has Consoulo getting her revenge on the family, which is satisfying but also sets in stone the movie’s opinion on social barriers and classes.

“Storytelling” is clearly concerned with the storyteller’s relationship with their fiction. In “Fiction,” Vi dramatizes the abuse she faced at her professor’s hand. When her classmates criticize her, she yells that it really happen. In one of Solondz’ most chilling endings, the professor intones that once something is written down, it becomes “fiction.” Any story, no matter how based in fact it might be, reflects the writer’s attitudes, prejudices, and feelings. “Non-Fiction” tackles this head-on, where a family’s tragedy becomes fodder for a snarky documentary. The film asks the question of how much responsibility a storyteller takes for his characters and what happens to them.

Powered by the ironically upbeat musical score from Belle and Sebastian, “Storytelling” does not have the cohesive bite that “Welcome to the Dollhouse” or “Happiness” had. This might be due to the excision of a third sequence, “Autobiography,” which starred James Van Der Beek and was about a football player discovering his homosexuality. Why the third segment was cut is unknown and it hasn’t yet become available. “Storytelling” still makes its point and is as funny, brutally honest, and as much of a conversation starter as the director’s previous films. [Grade: B+]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (1998)


3. Happiness

My introduction to the hilarious, deeply neurotic, and brutally honest world of Todd Solondz came, one day, when I caught “Happiness” on IFC, back when it was still the Independent Film Channel and they still actually showed those. I went into the film only knowing a little about Solondz’ films and was unprepared for it. Not so much for the dark places it went – I was vaguely aware of that – but for the big laughs it mined out of such dark subject matter. I’ve been a fan ever since and, revisiting “Happiness” for the first time in a while, find that the film resonates with me even more then it did before.

“Happiness” is Solondz’ two-and-a-half hour epic of upper-middle class suburban dysfunction. In interlinking stories, it follows one family and their satellites of friends and acquaintances. Lonely, unhappy Joy is envious of her more successful sisters, popular poet Helen and happily married mother of three Trish. But Helen is sexually unsatisfied, until a profane phone caller, secretly her plain next door neighbor, begins to call. Most explosively, Trish’s seemingly normal husband is a pedophile who is trying – and failing – to fight back his dark desires. What starts the dominoes of the sisters’ lives falling is their parents, married for decades, deciding to separate. Trish’s oldest son, eleven-year old Timmy, is searching for his first orgasm, asking the same questions that face everyone else: Not if happiness is attainable…. But if it even exist at all.

That plot synopsis probably doesn’t indicate it but “Happiness” actually is a comedy. And a very funny one.  The humor is most evident in Timmy’s storyline, which also conveniently sums up most of the movie’s themes. As a kid on the edge of sexual maturity, he is mocked at school for never achieving orgasm before. At film’s start, he doesn’t even know what “come’ means. Perhaps naively, he goes to his dad for answers. These moments provide some of the biggest cringe-laughs in the film. He casually asks his dad about “coming,” and his father frankly, if with some reluctance, provides answers. The most uproarious laughs appear when he discusses penis size with his father. The way Timmy nonchalantly compliments his father on his hypothetical girth, or provides updates on his on-going search for orgasm, is something an eleven year old probably wouldn’t think about but provides some hilarious, and uncomfortable, chuckles to grown-ups. The sickest joke of all is that Timmy’s dad is a sexual predator that targets boys in his son’s age group.

That storyline is the one most likely to turn people off of “Happiness.” Especially since, like everything else in the film, it mines dark laughs from the uncomfortable topic. Bill, somewhat ironically, is a psychologist, though one uninterested in his patients’ problems. When visiting his own shrink, Bill fantasizes about going on a killing spree, machine gunning innocent people in a park. This is the first indication that Bill is unwell, before we discover his predatory interest in young boys. The film is not unafraid to crack jokes about Bill’s pedophilia. He wistfully stares at Timmy’s friend, Johnny, an effeminate kid with a homophobic, overly macho father. The sickest, darkest laughs in the film occur when Johnny sleepovers at the Maplewood residence. Bill attempts to drug the boy and is repeatedly frustrated by his casual refusal to ingest the tainted foods. (The kid’s relaxed admittance the next day that he has blood in his stool is the primary sign that these moments are meant to be funny, sickening as they can be.)

However, “Happiness” isn’t just brave because it jokes about pedophilia. It also acknowledges the somewhat uncomfortable fact that pedophiles are also human beings. After tracking down and raping another one of Timmy’s friends, Bill becomes sickened by his own actions. He tries to tell his barely conscious wife, hoping for her forgiveness, but she doesn’t understand. After Johnny’s father sprays paint an incriminating message on their house, little Timmy asks his father about the rumors. Frankly and honestly, his father admits the evil things he has done and that he enjoyed them. And that, even though he’d never touch his son, he is sexually attracted to him. It’s a bracing, intimidating moment that the film approaches with frankness and sympathy. As Timmy breaks down in tears, his father wipes a single tear away from his own face. Like the movie he stars in, Dylan Baker asks the unthinkable of the audience: To feel sympathy for someone who rapes children. It’s a heavy question but the actor’s performance and the movie’s raw honesty earns it.

Another important character of the film is Joy, the youngest of the three central sisters. If Dawn Wiener didn’t already exist, Joy would be the definitive Todd Solondz protagonist. She is the black sheep of her family, still living at home into her thirties. The film introduces her on a date with Jon Lovitz’ Andy, a nerdy character that plays up the melancholy and rage that has always been under the surface of Lovitz’ usual comedic persona. Joy’s attempt to let Andy down gently backfires horribly. Joy says she’s happy but breaks down crying sometimes for no reason. Despite being a gentle, kind person who believes in the power of positive thinking, the universe is constantly shitting on her. (Her name is, I suspect, at least partially ironic.) After Andy kills himself, and his mother cusses her out, Joy weeps at her telemarketing job. When her co-workers can’t even remember who Andy was, and instead discuss the career of Edward James Olmos, she quits that job. Looking for meaning, she takes a scab position teaching English to immigrants. For her effort, she gets pelted with rotten vegetables by the strikers. While in class, she befriends Vlad, a Russian cab driver. More humor comes from this subplot, as Vlad nonchalantly admits to being a thief. Despite this, he successfully seduces Joy with a clumsy, if earnest, cover of “You Light Up My Life.” Though happy about this at first, this also goes sour for Joy. Vlad is a con artist, a possible woman-beater, and his undisclosed wife shows up at Joy’s job, attacking her. By film’s end, Joy has learned a hard lesson about trusting people, further proof that the film is ultimately sympathetic to her harsh treatment. Jane Adams is fantastic in the part of a down-trodden Pollyanna gaining some healthy cynicism.

Joy is also the most likable of the three sisters. It says a lot about how rotten Helen and Trish are that they remain the least appealing characters. Both pretend to be sympathetic to their sister’s woes. However, as soon as her back is turned, and sometimes to her face, they put her down. Trish openly refers to Joy as the least successful member of the family. Trish also doesn’t show any sympathy for people with problems, which slaps her in the face pretty hard when her husband’s proclivities come to light. Her catchphrase seems to be asking if anyone “watched Leno last night,” which is always met with stunned silence. As obnoxious as the clueless Trish is, Helen is actually more odious. Played by the perfectly shallow Lara Flynn Boyle, Helen goes on about the physically fit men that flock to her and all the sex she has. Her angsty poetry, all of it on the subject of child molestation, is hugely successful. Yet it’s not enough for Helen who, in her most disgusting moment, actually wishes she was molest as a child so her poetry would be more “deep.” She lives in New Jersey, in a low-rent apartment, for the sake of “irony.” She’s a disgusting hipster piece of shit that outranks a pederast and an obscene phone caller for least likable character in the film.

That obscene phone caller is actually one of the more relatable characters in “Happiness.” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Allen is human neurosis made flesh. He quivers, sweats, stutters, and weeps. He is introduced detailing his violent sexual fantasies but feels he’s too “boring” to ever attempt these fantasies in real life. (Allen fails to see the irony in this.) Actually, the thought of anyone reciprocating his fantasies seems to terrify him. He longs after Helen from across the hall but can’t bare to say more then two words to her. In order to express his desires, he calls random women on the phone, swearing sexually explicit scenarios at them. Another one of the film’s hilarious moments has Allen calling up Joy, who mistakes him for a potential suitor. By the time she realizes he’s a random pervert, Allen has already jerked himself to orgasm, which the film shows in explicit detail. Eventually, Allen calls Helen. These calls excite Helen, giving her the trauma she longs for, but Allen is too afraid to return her affections. Despite the sleaziness of his actions, Allen is deeply, unquestionably human. He longs for companionship but is terrified of rejection. When a co-worker attempts friendly conversation, he breaks out into uproarious, uncomfortable laughter, another funny moment. Hoffman’s performance oozes nervous energy but he maintains the gooey, emotional human center, showing that Allen is as deserving of human love as much as anyone.

Which he sort of comes close to receiving. An overweight, homely woman in his apartment constantly makes excuses to come to Allen’s door. She attempts to crack the neurotic man’s defenses and make a connection with him. Played by Camryn Manheim, Kristina is as immensely lonely as Allen. Her attempts to romance him are sort of sweet. She comes into his home, holding and kissing him after he falls into a drunken stupor. The most weirdly touching moment is when the two dance in a bar, to the sappy tune of Air Supply’s “All Out of Love.” But because “Happiness” is the sort of film is is, even Kristina is harboring a dark secret. She was raped by the apartment complex’s night watchmen and killed him in defense. She has since been, slowly, disposing of his dismembered corpse. She reveals this information while eating with Allen in a cheesy diner. Her graphic confession is routinely interrupted by a waitress bringing drinks or asking for desserts, another funny moment. While this reveal might seem like the last straw in the film’s library of shocks, it eventually reveals it purpose. After the shallow Helen shoots Allen down, uninterested in his schlubby appearance, he seeks comfort in Kristina’s arms, the two broken humans finding kinship with each other. 

Of all the subplots in “Happiness,” probably the least interesting is the one involving the sisters’ parents. Mona and Lenny have been married for a long time. Though they are emphatically not divorcing, Mona and Lenny’s marriage is ending. He no longer loves her. Actually, he doesn’t feel much of anything anymore. He simply wants to live out the rest of his life in solitude. His attempt to pursue an affair with another woman ends disastrously. When a doctor tells him he has a strong heart and could live another thirty years, he approaches the news with dread. Mona, meanwhile, doesn’t take the separation well. She attempts to buy a new home in a community of divorcees but is put off by the pushy saleswoman. She randomly breaks down in tears. Though a brilliantly cast-against-type Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara are great the parts, this storyline is easily the most dour and dreariest of “Happiness,” which is really rather saying a lot.

The conclusion of the film has the sisters reuniting with mom and dad around a dinner table. Timmy, with the help of a busty, sunbathing neighbor, finally achieves orgasm, which he enthusiastically announces to his family. That ends the film on another moment of uproarious cringe-humor. However, a line mere minutes before seems to address the movie’s blackly comic soul. When Joy suggests Helen writes a poem about her murderous neighbor, she bursts into inappropriate laughter. Helen clarifies to her sister that she’s “laughing with you, not at you.” Befuddled, Joy responds, “But I’m not laughing.” So is Solondz incriminating his audience for laughing at the foibles of these broken, confused people? Or maybe that line is directed at him. After all, “Happiness” is intentionally funny. Yet it never looses sight that these are people, no matter how dysfunctional they are. The film seems to conclude that the fleeting pleasure of orgasm is the only true happiness available to us but it never sneers at the lost souls also pursing true happiness. The film’s humor is more to diffuse the overwhelming sadness that would otherwise take over the story.

As in his previous films, the musical score is upbeat, in contrast with the film’s depressing content. An instrumental take on “You Light Up My Life” is a reoccurring motif in the film. Once again, Solondz turns to the simpering, sunshine tone of pop music as a counterpoint to his darkly psychological work. Running over the end credits is a song by Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix which Joy sang earlier in the film. The lyrics describe someone constantly on the look for happiness, even though its destined to always be outside of their grasp. That probably puts too fine a point upon it but it does successfully sum up the movie’s themes. It’s also a catchy number. The score draws heavily from the song, building off of its melody.

“Happiness” obviously isn’t for everyone. Its content is extreme, as are the mental issues of its characters. The screenplay doesn’t mince any words, describing their deviance and broken-down mental states in explicit detail. Though it mines laugh from their problems, the film is ultimately sympathetic to their plight. “Happiness” is powerful, funny, revealing, though never cathartic or uplifting. Such sentiments wouldn’t fit its blunt tone. And sometimes honesty is more important then tact. Those with the stomach for it will find “Happiness” to be a challenging and affecting film. It may be the definitive Todd Solondz movie. [Grade: A]

Monday, December 15, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (1995)


2. Welcome to the Dollhouse

After his experience making “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” completely disillusioned him, Todd Solondz was ready to give up filmmaking. He didn’t make another movie for five years. Until a well-to-do lawyer friend realized Solondz’ talent and offered to put up the money for whatever weird thing he wanted to make. The result of that agreement was “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Solondz’ break-out film, it won acclaim on the festival circuit, was one of Roger Ebert’s top films of the year, launched Heather Matarazzo’s career, and largely predicted the kind of movies the director would make in the future. Though it didn’t launch the director to mainstream recognition, it is one of the iconic success stories of the nineties indie film scene.

The film follows Dawn Wiener, an unfortunately named eleven year old girl entering the seventh grade. Homely, socially awkward, nearly friendless, and unable to dress herself well, Dawn is ruthlessly bullied and mocked by her school mates. She’s the middle child of her family, between her nerdy older brother and her spoiled younger sister. Her micro-managing parents mostly ignore her, when they’re not actively punishing her. Dawn harbors an impossible crush on her older brother’s hunky friend. While that doesn’t go anywhere, she instead is pursued by one of her bullies, a would-be drug-dealer who comes from an even more dysfunctional home then Dawn's. On the edge of adolescence and trapped in a life that makes her deeply unhappy, Dawn attempts to rebel and find something more for herself.

The most valuable thing about “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is its unflinchingly honest portrayal of bullying and the effects it has on the teenage psyche. The film begins with one of the most terrifying sights any middle-schooler could ever be faced with: A crowded lunch room with no friendly tables in sight. Dawn attempts to find a place to sit and is rejected each time. She eventually sits down next to a girl that might be equally weird. A group of cheerleaders call Dawn gay and the other girl at the table joins in on the name-calling. Her classmates have nicknamed Dawn “Wiener-Dog” and her locker is covered in similarly themed graffiti. One of the film’s cruelest scenes has a bully cornering Dawn in the bathroom and refusing to let her leave until she’s taken a shit, being watched the whole time. When she attempts to come to the aide of a fellow bullied kid, he calls her name too. People call her a lesbo, a faggot, and a cunt. She faces all of that and more on a daily basis. There’s no relief, no silver-lining, and seemingly no way out. That’s the life Dawn lives and it’s the same life million of kids go through every day in middle school and high school, yours truly included.

Sadly, Dawn’s home life isn’t much better. Everyone around her is self-adsorbed and uninterested in helping Dawn through her problems. Little sister Missy is the apple of her mother’s eyes. Usually seen prancing around in a pink tutu, Missy’s relationship with Dawn is antagonistic, at best. The younger sister is incredibly selfish and usually tattletales on her older sister. The older brother seems utterly ambivalent to Dawn, tolerating her with a quiet contempt. Worst yet, mom and dad do not treat her any better. Dad is a non-entity, kowtowing to the mother. Mom always takes Missy’s side, even when she’s wrong. Her parents’ abuse is most evident during two dinner scenes. In the first, the mother insist Dawn apologize to her little sister for some minor trespass. When Dawn refuses to do so, she’s forced to sit at the table until bed time. The second, far worst moment comes later on. When preparing for their 20th anniversary party, Mom insists Dawn tears down the home-made clubhouse in the backyard, her sole sanctuary. When Dawn refuses, the mother goes ahead and destroys it anyway. To rub it in, everyone at the dinner table that night gets a slice of chocolate cake… Except Dawn.

The universe constantly shits on Dawn. But she’s not flawless. Dawn’s only true friend is a younger kid named Ralphy. Ralphy is even more socially awkward then Dawn, being effeminate and speaking stiltedly. The two are friends, hiding in the club house together, but don’t seem to have much in common. At one point, Dawn pushes Ralphy down, yelling “Faggot!” at him. Later on, after an especially rough day, Ralphy calls Dawn. She yells at the receiver, calling her only friend in the world cruel words and refusing to acknowledge him. In Todd Solondz’ world, nobody is entirely a victim. Dawn suffers cruelty and passes that cruelty on to other people. It’s an all-too-realistic depiction of how young people struggle with and adsorb the constant punishment of bullying.

As incredibly dark as the film goes, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is a comedy of sorts. Most of the film’s humor comes from Dawn’s incredibly dorky attempts to rebel against her awful life. During a school speech, Dawn is pelted with spit-balls by the bullies behind her. She attempts to fire back her own spitball. Instead, she hits another teacher in the eye, causing the woman to scream loudly. The biggest laugh in the film comes when Dawn, escorted by her disbelieving parents, is starred down by the same teacher, now sporting an eye-patch. (Teachers aren’t much more then bullies in the film. After attempting to hide her test from a cheating classmate, Dawn and the cheater both get throw in detention. Afterwards, the teacher forces her to read an essay about dignity to the class, ironically robbing the girl of her’s.) Dawn’s further attempts at rebellion involve sawing the heads of her little sister’s dolls and seeking out sex advice she doesn’t understand from one of Steve’s ex-girlfriends. It’s awkward and funny if no less brutally honest then the rest of the movie.

Dawn’s infatuation with Steve is another sign of her slowly growing adolescence. The handsome Steve fancies himself a Jim Morrison type, singing sleazily overwrought lyrics in Dawn’s brother’s band. Hilariously, his earnest delivery contrasts badly against the clarinet and tinny synth of the other band members. Steve is a slacker, showing little in interest in school. He’s a horndog too, seemingly sleeping with any semi-attractive girl his age. He’s also the only human being in the film to show any kindness to Dawn. He’s self-adsorbed in a harmless way, sharing his grandiose life plans with an-all-too-willing-to-listen Dawn. She shows her affection for him by making him fishsticks and pouring a glass of Hawaiian Punch. An innocent compliment towards her piano playing is enough to further embolden Dawn’s affection. By the end though, Dawn is made fully aware of Steve’s complete ambivalence towards her. That being said, he’s still probably the nicest guy in the movie.

What motivates the plot more is Dawn’s bizarre relationship with Brandon. At first, he’s just another bully, calling Dawn and Ralphy cruel names and pushing her around. However, Dawn visibly wounds Brandon when she calls him a “retard.” Lashing out at the girl, he threatens to “rape” her. Yet Brandon is too young to truly understand what that word means. Instead, he corners her, puts a tiny pocket knife on her, and plants a gingerly kiss on her face. Dawn is so unaccustomed to any affection, no matter how negative, that she becomes intrigued by Brandon. In what might be the youngest sadomasochistic relationship ever put to screen, Dawn seems aroused and fascinated by Brandon’s repeated threats of rape. The two soon develop something like a normal, pre-teen romance. They bond over their mutual statuses as outsiders. Brandon’s father appears to be an abrasive redneck. He lives in a broken down home. His older brother is mentally disabled, which is why the word “retard” affects him so much. Brandon is as socially awkward as Dawn but slightly better at navigating the middle school system. He figured out that being cruel to others elevates his status just enough to prevent him from being picked on himself. Dawn’s unrealistic preoccupation with Steve breaks up her budding relationship with Brandon. As dysfunctional as it was, the two had something but Dawn is too dorky to realize that.

In its last third, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” introduces a more dramatic device. As an act of petty revenge against her mom and her little sister, Dawn doesn’t tell a neighbor that Missy needs to be picked up from ballet class. This leads to the younger sister being kidnapped. Though it’s inclusion into the story is somewhat awkward, the film makes this plot development work. Now the youngest child in her family, Dawn receives far more attention from her parents. Her mother’s too torn up about Missy’s disappearance to chastise Dawn for anything. Her father, meanwhile, collapses from a stress-induced gallbladder attack. Eventually though, the guilt sets in. Dawn catches a midnight bus ride to New York, putting up missing poster all over the city and asking uninterested city residents if they’ve seen her sister. Falling asleep in the streets, Dawn has a dream that she rescues her sister from an abductor. Instead of her sister’s safety, this fantasy is more preoccupied with everyone in her life praising Dawn and declaring their love for her. Dawn hopelessly desires the adoration that is always just out of reach. Reality contrasts cruelly with her dreams. She wakes up, calls home and discovers that Missy had been found. Her mother was so preoccupied with her little sister’s return that she didn’t even notice Dawn was gone. The geeky young girl has to pay for her own bus fare home.

This final cruel kick in the pants is indicative of “Welcome to the Dollhouse’s” message. Dawn is force to present a speech about her sister’s kidnapping to the whole school. The crowd begins to mock her, chanting “Wiener-Dog!” The teachers don’t respond until she’s reduced to tears. In the film’s final minutes, Dawn asks her older brother if things get any better in the eighth grade. He gravely responds that they don’t and won’t for a long time. Throughout the film, a summer vacation to Disney Land is continuously teased. At the end, Dawn says she doesn’t want to go. Her parents make her go anyway, denying the poor girl even that much control over her own life. The final seconds of the film are devoted to Dawn singing on the bus, her voice singled out among the other kids on the bus. Even when in a crowd, she’s alone.

Telling a story revolving around pre-teen kids obviously meant the director had to cast pre-teen actors in the roles. This was Heather Matarazzo’s feature debut and she’s gone on to have a solid character actress’ career. Matarazzo is unpolished at times, not being entirely able to make all of her dialogue sound convincing. However, that raw quality is probably what was needed. Brenden Sexton Jr., who has gone on to a decent career of his own, made his debut as Brandon. He, too, inhabits the role, not being afraid to play an asshole but clearly projecting the hurt soul inside. Eric Mabius as Steve has enough dumb good looks to make it obvious why a girl like Dawn would crush on him so bad. As solid as the other performances in the film are, this is Matarazzo’s story and she owns it.

Solondz’ first movie, “Fear, Anxiety & Depression,” was almost a musical, punctuating many scenes with upbeat pop music. As much as the director wishes to disown that film, he continued this habit over to “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” (In another unmentioned connection, Jill Wisoff, who played the clueless girlfriend in “Depression,” was the music supervisor for this movie.) Scene transitions are often scored to rowdy, surf-rock style punk music, the interior background music to Dawn’s teenage rebellion. Steve’s rock songs underscores Dawn’s inner feelings and emotion. While Steve sings about obsessing over a random sex doll in the title-lending song, Dawn begins to develop an obsession with him. The music is catchy and upbeat, intentionally contrasting with the sad, depressing lives the characters live. It’s a sarcastic trick the director has utilized over and over.

You might be tempted to call “Welcome to the Dollhouse” “misery porn.” There’s no doubt that the film trades in alienation and depression. However, Todd Solondz’ films resist that label with their brutal honesty and genuine sympathy for their lost, confused, broken protagonists. The film is a story that needs to be told. Many viewers will see themselves in poor, sad Dawn Wiener. The film is powerful, heartbreaking, and at times hilarious. If you’ve checked out by now, you can already tell Solondz isn’t for you. If you’re swept up, fascinated, and especially if you relate, odds are good you’ll follow the director’s career for some time to come. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (1989)


When it comes to dark comedies, none are darker then the films of Todd Solondz. His movies are very funny and very depressing. He tackles highly controversial, inflammatory topics like child molestation, rape, abortion, murder, and suburban depression. Many critics have accused him of being misanthropic and nihilistic, a man mocking the horrible lives of his miserable characters. Yet I consider Solondz to be a hugely humanistic filmmaker, one who seeks to find something sympathetic in even the most despicable of characters. His movies most definitely aren't for everyone. After his few breakthroughs, it seems he always endeavored to isolate those who enjoyed them. And, hey, what says "Merry Christmas!" like suicidal depression, sexual depravity, and upper middle-class neurosis and depression?


1. Fear, Anxiety & Depression

Todd Solondz broke on to the indie film scene in 1995 with “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” a controversial film that earned a lot of critical praise and cemented Solondz as an up-and-coming talent in the film world. It was as good a debut as any struggling filmmaker could ask for. Except “Welcome to the Dollhouse” wasn’t Todd Solondz’ first movie. His feature debut came much earlier in 1989 with the cheerfully entitled “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” The film was barely released and apathetically received by the few who saw it. Solondz was reportedly locked out of the editing room and he has disowned the final product, refusing to discuss it in interviews. It was such a negative experience for the director that he nearly swore off film-making all together. The movie has never been released on anything but a washed-out VHS tape. A DVD or Blu-Ray release is incredibly unlikely. Is “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” a secret origin worthy of Solondz’ career or is it the justifiably buried blunder he considers it to be?

The film follows Ira Ellis, a stage writer struggling to break into the art scene of 1980s New York. His boss at his day job berates him with profanity. His parents are obnoxious. He sinks all his money into a pretentious stage show that tanks critically and financially. His best friend, a painter with similarly rotten luck, secretly hates Ira’s plays. Ira dumps his incredibly neurotic and clingy girlfriend for a succession of other women, like an emotionally distant performance artist and his best friend’s tumultuous ex. Each of them are crazy in their own way and similarly inspire both utter despair and burst of creativity in Ira. And none of the above resolve his fear, his anxiety or his depression.

After finally seeing “Fear, Anxiety & Depression,” I’m quite surprised to see that Solondz has renounced it so completely. The film is, in many ways, very similar to his later, more critically accepted work. Both concern a highly neurotic protagonist struggling to find happiness in a world that does nothing but heap shit on him. The main character is deeply flawed, broken in a very human way. He inspires sympathy because of his blatant imperfections. Yet he’s frequently selfish and narrow-minded, so much that the audience questions whether they want to relate to this guy. The world around him is deeply unsympathetic to his pain. Romance does nothing but complicate things further. The movie ends on a bitingly comic moment, wrapping a dark moment in the characters’ life up with a sardonic bow. The director’s first film shows that his interests have remain fairly consistent throughout his entire career.

Yet “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” is very different from the director’s later movies in several important ways. It’s more blatantly comedic. Solondz’ later films plum the depths of misery for dark comedy but also as an exploration of the human condition. “Fear, Anxiety & Depression,” meanwhile, has wackier gags and broader characters. Ira’s first play, “Despair,” is a facile parody of pretentious stage plays, one that’s barely believable. After that play fails, Ira attempts to hang himself. That scene, in a later Solondz film, would be played much straighter. Instead, here, it’s a wacky – if depressing – sight gag. While lost in self-adsorbed thought, Ira’s girlfriend is attacked, and possibly raped, by a pair of street thugs. This goes unnoticed by Ira. Later, another date is also interrupted by a violent assault from some random crooks. A serious conversation between two characters is scored to a homeless man urinating in the background. The director’s debt to Woody Allen is also evident in the way the film focuses on Ira’s sex life. His failed relationships, and lousy taste in mates, are played more for goofy laughs then deeper drama. The Allen influence shows in the ending too, when Iris premieres a successful play based on an idealized version of his own life. These differences makes the film a less rewarding watch then the director’s better, later work, though it's about equally amusing.

Another really big difference is that Mr. Solondz steps in front of in “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” In another move perhaps inspired by Woody Allen, Todd did triple duty on his debut, writing, directing, and starring. Solondz is about as assuming a leading man as you could ask for. His frizzy hair, beady eyes, coke-bottle glasses, constantly-barred buck teeth and nasally voice do not make for movie star good looks. As an actor, Solondz gives an all right performance. He certainly embodies the role and has no problem playing up the character’s negative traits. He is weirdly watchable for such an odd presence, managing to carry an at-times shaky film. However, like the movie itself, Solondz is too inconsistent to be fully satisfying. When the script plays up the characters’ negative attributes, Solondz is too unlikable. And not in a human, relatable way. Just in a way that’s kind of irritating.

A fairly decent supporting cast holds up Solondz’ uneven lead. Max Cantor is good as Ira’s best friend who secretly loathes his stage plays. Cantor’s sometimes mean-spirited actions come from a place of vulnerability and he remains somewhat likable even during his darkest moments. Jill Wisoff has a tough part as Sharon, Ira’s emotionally unstable girlfriend. She has to be irritating enough that you can imagine Ira would want to leave her but without becoming a cartoon character. Sharon is still cartoonish but Wisoff is funny, manic, and charismatic. Alexandra Fersten as Janice, Jack’s girlfriend, gives probably the most emotionally human performance in the film. Her actions seem rooted in reason and understanding. The only thing resembling a real name actor in the cast is Stanley Tucci as a hated former schoolmate of Ira that has now found success in off-Broadway theater. Tucci’s innate likable help stabilizes another character that is broadly written.

Another purpose of “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” is to satirize the art scene of eighties New York. Ellis’ own plays are obvious and cheesy but rooted in an older tradition of college pretensions. Instead, it’s the other parts of the film that pokes fun at the world of high-strung performance art. The characters visit a bar where a mock-autopsy is performed and a wall of monitors reflect the faces in the crowd. The girl Ira spends half of the movie chasing is an unbelievable artist type nicknamed “Junk.” During one of her performances, she screams profanity at the crowd and pantomimes taking a bowel movement before vomiting on everyone. She and Jack, after meeting up, spend some time mocking how “fake” New York is now while simultaneously being enamored of trendy new restaurants. The movie’s biggest indictment of the art world comes when Tucci’s character, who is completely clueless about theater, has huge success while someone like Ira, who is genuinely passionate about the art if misguided, suffers in obscurity. None of it is cutting edge, and none of the satire truly works, but Solondz makes his point. (That point, probably, being that he really hates hipsters.)

The movie’s focus on relationships is less satisfying. First off, it’s a bit unbelievable that someone as homely and neurotic as Ira Ellis could score, or nearly score, with some of the women in this film. His relationship with Sharon would have been much sadder in a later Solondz movie. She’s desperately in love with him, building her entire life around a man that is clearly not invested in her. After he dumps her, she tries to kill herself, literally swallowing an entire bottle of pills. She survives but her recovery is played strictly for laughs. That character’s reappearance in the last act is unlikely for multiple reasons. First off, the two meeting again is an example of lazy screenwriting. Secondly, her personality changing so drastically in such a short amount of time strains plausibility. And there’s the matter of Junk. The character is so ridiculous, actress Jane Hamper speaking in a robotic monotone. She treats Ira terribly, standing him up twice and barely acknowledging him when they talk. I guess its certainly possible that a schmuck like Ira could be that into a girl just because she’s pretty. But I can’t imagine him putting up with her aggravating eccentricities for as long as he does. The movie throws one more relationship with Ira, in the form of a grieving Janice, who seeks comfort in the arms of her ex-boyfriend’s best friend. This is probably the most believable – and funniest – romance in the film, as the movie sharply reflects the massive differences in the two people’s personality. Disappointingly, it’s resolved mostly off-screen. If anything, the script proves that Solondz did not have a future in romantic comedies.

You know what’s another weird thing about “Fear, Anxiety & Depression?” It’s practically a musical. Three time the movie devotes screen time to montages scored to goofy songs penned for the film and sung in-character by the cast. The weirdest part of this? Most of the songs are pretty good. Sharon’s romantic ode to Ira, which plays over one of the couple’s awkward dates, nicely shows how differently the two think of the relationship. It’s sickening sweet but intentionally so. Even better is Ira’s own romantic ode to Junk. He naively positions himself as a “neat sort of guy,” a sentiment unlikely to impress the hyper-hip girl. The date it plays over, which has the dorky Ira trying on thrift shop clothes and snorting cocaine for the first time, flips the situation around, showing the man to be as lame and unrealistic as his ex-girlfriend. The best use of music comes when Janice gets a part in a jukebox musical revival. She sings a flighty love song, performing very well, when Jack walks in. She never totally breaks character, even if her composure starts to slip. This is an important character moment for Jack too, as his current date mocks Janine’s lovely performance, making him realize this is not a person he wants to be involve with. Solondz would ironically incorporate upbeat pop music into many of his future films and that habit undeniably started here.

“Fear, Anxiety & Depression” is flawed and deeply unpolished. It’s clearly the effort of a first time filmmaker. However, the movie is also nowhere near as bad as its reputation implies. It's fascinating to a fan of the director, as you can clearly see his obsessions and reoccurring interests already in place. The movie is even funny, in ways similar to and different from the pitch black cringe comedies Solondz would eventually find fame with. The movie is tricky to track down – It’s not even on YouTube – and will probably only be of interest to fans of the director. The final product is solid enough that I wish an official DVD release did exist, if just to give the movie a cleaned-up transfer. The VHS is dark and scratchy. I doubt this will change Todd’s mind but I suggest his debut is worth a second look and further discussion. [Grade: B-]

Friday, December 5, 2014

Recent Watches: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)


In certain nerd circles, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was the most anticipated film ever made. It, perhaps, even out-hypes other nerd-culture touchstones like the old new “Star Wars” movie and maybe even the new new “Star Wars” movie. By that point in the “Rings” phenomenon, I was completely burned out on hobbits, elves, and orcs. I even skipped the movie in the theater, not seeing it until it cropped up on DVD. Even then, I think I fell asleep before it was over. Rewatching “Return of the King” for the purpose of this review, I realized this might be the first time I’ve ever actually seen the movie in its entirety, from start to finish.

Like “The Two Towers” before it, the film follows a large group of characters spread out over an epic story of good versus evil. Frodo and Sam, with Gollum in tow, continue towards Mount Doom, unaware that the creature is plotting to betray them. Gandalf and the other hobbits head into Gondor, the kingdom Aragon is the rightful heir to. Sauron’s forces march on the walled city, its current king reluctant to call for help from the neighboring kingdom of Rohan. Uncertain if their forces can stand alone, Aragon and the Fellowship head for help. With Frodo and Sam coming ever closer to Mount Doom, and destroying the Ring, the heroes have to sally forth to another battle.

As in the previous films, “The Return of the King” is most bogged down by its main subplot. Frodo and Sam’s ever-continuing march is the film’s biggest weakness. At story’s onset, Frodo is feeling the weight of the Ring more then ever. Gollum is obviously planning bad things. The film is open with this. The first scene in the movie is a flashback, showing the human Smeagol succumbing to the One Ring’s power, which transitions to him discussing his plans to betray the hobbits. Sam tries to warn Frodo about their traveling partner’s obvious treachery. Naturally, or else the movie would be over a lot sooner, Frodo fails to see what bad news Gollum is. The two hobbits even break up at one point, thanks to an especially silly plan the crawling critter employed. They go their separate ways before, surprise!, Frodo realizes his best bro was right all along. This plot point probably could have been avoided fairly easily but the movie has the excuse of Frodo being influenced by the Ring. The two hobbits’ unbreakable love for each other is highlighted twice. First, when Sam shows up to rescue Frodo just when it’s urgent. Secondly, when the two are at the foot of Mount Doom, when Frodo can no longer go on, Sam hefts him into his arms, carrying him further. For the record, I support LGBTQ rights for men, women, and hobbits. Not sure why I felt the need to disclose that…

Out of all the “Lord of the Rings” movies, “Return of the King” is the one most likely to remind viewers that Peter Jackson once directed horror movies. Gollum is leading Frodo into a trap, of course. At the base of the orc’s encampment, Shelob the giant spider waits. The sequence has Frodo stumbling around a dark cave, cobwebs lying everywhere. Shelob is certainly an intimidating presence, a tarantula on steroids but covered with ooey scars and bumps. Frodo seems to get out of trouble when he remembers a plot device Cate Blanchett gave him two movies ago. He still gets stung, setting up the umpteenth Frodo death tease, which he narrowly escapes through the actions of other characters. Later on, Aragon and friends are sent to recruit some reinforcements for the battle at Gondor. A plot point that mostly pops up out of nowhere has Aragon being the heir to the throne of Gondor, which gives him power of authority over a fleet of ghost knights. Okay, sure. Hey, here’s some wicked cool ghosts decked out in swords and armor and shit! Does that make sense? I'm not sure but the movie moves past it so fast that you hardly notice. And it’s a cool visual.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a “Lord of the Rings” movie without at least one mostly extraneous subplot. Upon arriving in Gondor, Gandalf and Pippin go to the current reigning king, a place holder for Aragon and the father of Boromir and Faramir. He’s not interested in giving up his current seat as king. He’s not even that interested in defending his kingdom from the incoming army of darkness. He’s pretty pissed that his son died and Faramir is pretty hung up on his dead brother being dad’s favorite. When the battle comes to the kingdom, Faramir seemingly perishes in battle. Pippin spies that he’s still alive but the king doesn’t want to hear that. Instead, he’s ready to immolate himself and his remaining son. And he would have gotten away with it too, if Gandalf hadn’t rode in on a white horse like a total bad ass and kicked the guy into the funeral pyre. What affect do these events have on the overall plot? Well, it leaves the throne clear for Aragon when the king is finally ready to return. Could this plot have been resolved in a much smoother fashion? Certainly and, considering the movie is three hours and twenty minutes long, it probably should have been cut altogether. (Though it does lead to that pretty nice sequence of Pippin singing before the war breaks out.)

And speaking of the war! “Return of the King” is the most combat heavy of all the “Rings” films. The film features two huge battle sequences that comprise most of the epic movie’s epic run time. The first begins with orcs and trolls bombarding the white walls of Gondor with big ass rocks. They only hold for so long until the monsters make it into the city, which leads to some fun sequences of trolls tossing people around. There are lots of monsters in the movie actually. Dragons swoop down over the city, tossing foes into the air, which is a sweet gag. The best monsters in the movie are the giant, four-tusked elephants with names very similar to but ultimately different from “elephants.” They make an impression, entering by swiping enemies out of the way with their giant trunks. The way the heroes deal with the oliphaunts makes for impressive spectacle too. Karl Urban tosses a spear into one’s head, taking down two at a time. Later, Legolas leaps onto one’s back, tearing the saddle off, sending the occupants to their deaths.

The most plot relevant monster is that the dragon-riding Witchking. After they weren’t featured much in the last movie, it’s nice to see one of the Ringwraiths get a prominent role. This leads to one of the most satisfying ass-kickings in the movie. Since the Aragon/Arwin love story takes focus again in this one, Miranda Otto’s Eowyn is given a second purpose in the plot. She sneaks to the front line, disguised as a man, to keep an eye on her dad. She winds up in front of the Witchking who, it just so happens, can’t be killed by any “man.” Cue Eowyn ripping off her helmet, letting down her hair, and stabbing the shit out of the bad guy. The action actually peaks there, to a degree. The heroes taking the fight to Sauron at the end, battling at the gates of Mordor, is cool but lacks any super-memorable moments, save from Gimli’s witty one-liners.

As a conclusion to the epic series, “Return of the King” is fairly satisfying. We get to see the inside of Mount Doom. Frodo and Sam stand at the lava’s edge before Gollum makes a dramatic re-entrance into the story. As is expected, Frodo is tempted by the ring one, Elijah Wood getting to try out the psycho eyes he has used plenty of times in his post-‘Rings” career. Gollum gets a suitable send-off, being reunited with his precious before taking a magnificent dive into Mount Doom. Sauron’s Omniscient Eyeball of Doom collapses, taking all of Mordor with him. Frodo and Sam accepted their mortality before a last-minute save from the eagles, who probably should have shown up by now.

You’d think, gee, that’s a good ending. But “Return of the King” continues, Frodo being reunited with all his friends and family while recovering from his injuries. Need some more closure? Here’s a scene of Aragon, reinstated as the king of Gondor, declaring the war over, marrying Arwin, and honoring the hobbits. That’s got to be the end, right? Nope. We flash forward to the Shire, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry returning to their home, happy to be back. Is it over? Nope! Frodo writes down his life story in a book and Sam gets married, starting a family. One more scene? Damn it, movie, I've got money in the meter. Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo, and the elves get on a boat, leaving Middle-earth. It’s a highly symbolic ending, representing the age of magic ending and the age of Man beginning. Our heroes share teary goodbyes and literally float off into the sunset. Yet “Return of the King” still doesn’t end, giving us one more moment of Sam reuniting with his family and returning to his simple hobbit home. Peter Jackson obviously loved the world of Middle-earth so much, he clearly didn’t want to leave it.

“Return of the King” is long so sitting through the whole thing is a bit of a chore. It’s long enough that I’m not interesting in ever watching the super-mega-extended cut. Its epic-ness was rewarded by the Academy giving it every Oscar it was nominated for, being the only fantasy film to ever take home Best Picture. Sure, it’s good, probably as good as any of the Middle-earth movies ever will be. Rewatching the trilogy has been a rewarding experience. At the end of the journey, as I'm sure these snarky reviews have revealed, I’m still only the most casual of “Rings” fans. Yet it's fair to say I appreciate this trilogy a little more. [7/10]