Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

The Zero Theorem

August 23, 2014

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The sickly neon lighting, the relentless Dutch angles, the grab-bag mix of futuristic and steampunk design, the theme of escape from bureaucratic control through fantasy: these are all excellent indicators that you’re watching a Terry Gilliam film, and his new one, The Zero Theorem, is the Terry Gilliamest piece in his portfolio in quite a while. I wish I could say that I mean that as a compliment, but Gilliam’s flaws may be inseparable from his strengths: when he’s on, he’s brilliant, but when he whiffs, the bleak swooshing sound is deafening, and The Zero Theorem, despite my fervent desire to claim otherwise, is one whiff after another. The surprise here is that most of the ground Gilliam covers here, he already trod devilishly well in Brazil, and after a while I wondered why he didn’t know that. He’s said he considers this film the third in a dystopian trilogy begun by Brazil and continued in 12 Monkeys, but it plays like a Gilliam imitator’s crude remix of the two.

Christoph Waltz, bald and charmless, is the obsessive computer geek Qohen Leth, who toils in a cubicle for the Management, personified by a white-haired eminence (Matt Damon, seemingly doing a Philip Seymour Hoffman turn). Qohen is given the Zero Theorem assignment — he has to prove that everything in the universe adds up to nothing. “Zero must equal 100%,” we’re told by machines again and again. This nihilist math/philosophy problem has broken many other thinkers, and Qohen, who refers to himself as “we” and has the prerequisite collection of genius quirks, finds himself dangerously distracted by blonde femme fatale Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who may have been sent by Management to test his resolve or sabotage his efforts.

Pat Rushin’s script plays as if Rushin fell asleep during a Gilliam marathon, woke up, and cobbled together a screenplay from what he dimly remembered. What’s missing is any emotional charge, any urgency — what William Goldman once called “the pregnant moment,” the reason the story is being told now. Qohen is a passive character obsessed with a phone call he once missed, a phone call he thinks could have revealed his purpose in life. Aside from that, he works on the theorem and he dallies in virtual reality with Bainsley. Much of The Zero Theorem is a two-character play, spiced up by Gilliam’s Dutch angles and colors that snap, crackle and pop. One dialogue scene, between Qohen and Bainsley in the cluttered former monastery he calls home, dribbles on and on; Gilliam seems to have forgotten that editing is part of the art of cinema, the thing that moves the images and the story.

Tedium sets in fast. Gilliam makes the surroundings as candied as he can, with Satire 101 messages running across digital billboards. The Management controls everything, but except for a Mutt and Jeff team of a heavy and his dwarf companion (ah, Gilliam and his dwarves), the Management doesn’t have much of a menacing presence, or a presence at all, really. Qohen stays inside for months grinding away on the theorem, occasionally resisting cybertherapy from Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and sharing irascible dialogue with the Management’s son (Lucas Hedges), a prodigious hacker who calls everyone Bob. Little of this has any dramatic interest; it’s full of bits of sour whimsy, which we’re meant to take as a hip, cynical vision of bland, hellish tomorrow (and tomorrow in this sort of dystopian satire is always today with futuristic trimmings).

One wants to root for Gilliam and his stubbornly uncommercial work, especially if we’ve enjoyed his earlier movies. I get no pleasure from swatting a new Gilliam film — there aren’t going to be very many more of them, he’s not getting any younger, and he has a hell of a time getting these oddball things financed as it is. A salute, then, to Gilliam for staying true to himself, not even knowing how to sell out. But the irony of The Zero Theorem is that it’s a parable about finding meaning in life, but it doesn’t mean much itself. It’s a doodle, a riff on Gilliam’s pet themes, but emotionally and dramatically it’s an inverse of the theorem: 100% of it equals zero.

Joe

May 4, 2014

20140504-211138.jpgDavid Gordon Green, it appears, has sweated out whatever troglodyte fever inspired him to detour into grossout comedies. Hailed as a successor to Terrence Malick (or at least a skilled acolyte) for his 2000 debut George Washington, Green in recent years had fallen in with a bad crowd of dudebros, hitting his nadir with the stoner romp Your Highness. As if putting away childish things, though, Green has rebounded with the seriocomic Prince Avalanche and now the grim Southern gothic Joe. The Malick influence obtains here, too, showing us what it might be like if Malick’s camera caressed the swamplands and itinerants’ detritus of Texas instead of its suburbs and plains. Green, however, gives us more finely-etched characters than Malick can. Adapting a Larry Brown novel, Green and scripter Gary Hawkins hang out in the morning chill and evening swelter of the rural south, observing without comment.

Nicolas Cage, sweating out his own schlocky fever, plays the eponymous Joe as a man weighed down by his own past (violence, prison time) and his temper that keeps threatening to make his past the present. Joe supervises a crew of men who poison trees so that new ones can be planted — a perhaps too on-the-nose metaphor for godforsaken communities like Joe’s, plundered and abandoned and financially butchered. A local 15-year-old, Gary (Tye Sheridan), emerges from the woods and asks for a job on Joe’s crew. Gary seeks money almost as much as he needs a reason to get out of the house, away from his out-of-it mother and his vicious drunk of a father.

Gary Poulter plays the father, Wade, a backwoods boogeyman whose veins seem to be pumping with cold acid; he beats Gary, steals from him, and later does even more irredeemably beastly things. Poulter was one of several actors in Joe who have no previous film credits; a homeless man, he was found by Green on the streets of Austin, and died there before the film was released. If Poulter only had this one performance in him, it was a stellar one to come in with and go out on. Wade is vile, but Poulter somehow locates the sad humanity in him. We’re seeing the wreckage of too much booze crossed with too many bad brain chemicals — the man Gary will probably never be but Joe is ever vigilant against becoming. Two other inexperienced actors — Aj Wilson McPhaul as a sympathetic sheriff and Brian Mays as Joe’s right-hand man on the crew — bring effortless authority and reality to the movie. Joe is full of amazing camera faces, such as a homeless man (Elbert Hill Jr.) who unfortunately crosses paths with Wade. As in George Washington, Green deftly casts local non-actors for the authenticity — the palpable sense of having lived hard — they offer.

Does the movie really need the stinky psycho Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has a grudge against Joe and ultimately joins forces with Wade? It threatens to tip Joe into conventional thriller territory, and surrounding Joe with mean men he wants to differentiate himself from is sort of gilding the lily. It gives Cage fresh raw meat to chew on, though, and he consistently underplays. We don’t catch him cartoonishly straining to keep a lid on his rage, as in Wild at Heart or the Ghost Rider movies. Cage here is closer to the ballpark of Nick Nolte in Affliction, forever haunted by the ghost of his own DNA.

Joe isn’t flawless — I’d file it on the “poky but compelling” shelf — but it’s a real movie, for grown-ups, fighting for table scraps in a marketplace dominated by spider-men and x-persons. It arises from a genuine wounded artistic sensibility; it respects talk and sadness and the irresolution of life. It’s also a man-cave movie, where women are whores or drunks and innocence is represented by Gary’s nonverbal sister, though they’re also seen to be living inside an apocalyptic reality created in large part by corrupt and violent men. (What I said about Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor also holds true here: Joe isn’t a feminist work but it really isn’t masculinist either.) Thematically the movie is simplistic but sound — sometimes the two go together — and Green, along with ace cinematographer Tim Orr, finds the beauty in the squalor in which these people love and hate and work and kill. It’s a work of quiet substance.

To the Wonder

April 21, 2013

To-The-Wonder-Trailer6The throughline of To the Wonder is quite simple, as many romantic movies are. An American man in France falls in love with a French woman. He invites her and her daughter back to America. It doesn’t work out, and the woman and her daughter leave. The man strikes up a relationship with another woman he once knew years ago. That doesn’t work out, either. Then the man invites the French woman back to America. They get married. This doesn’t make things much easier. Meanwhile, a priest is having trouble with his faith. He and the man wander around a bit, comforting the sick and elderly. The end, I think.

That sort of synopsis doesn’t nearly grapple with To the Wonder, but then no synopsis could pin Terrence Malick to the ground. This is Malick’s sixth film in a 40-year career; he has been working at a positively blistering clip lately, relative to his output, because his previous film, The Tree of Life, only came out two years ago, and he’s working on another. Malick, who once taught philosophy and translated Heidegger, is perhaps the lone acolyte of the American sublime; he is preoccupied with the ineffable, the primordial, the ecstatic. To this end, he makes hushed and meditative films with painfully beautiful photography and lots of solemn, whispered voice-overs. Not a Team Malick member myself, I thought that Tree of Life was gaseous yet movingly inchoate, the work of a true seeker, and that it probably represented the purest expression of what he’s getting at.

And what is he getting at? In To the Wonder, the man (Ben Affleck) and the French woman (Olga Kurylenko) seem to represent The Man and The Woman. There are no people in a Terrence Malick film; instead there are abstracted avatars standing in for ideas. In Tree of Life, Brad Pitt was Nature — red in tooth and claw — and Jessica Chastain was Grace, spinning about free-spiritedly. And we see the same dynamic here. Men, weighted to the earth, must contend with its despoliation (Affleck’s character literally measures how much we’re poisoning the soil). Women, if this film and its predecessor are to be believed, fling their arms to the heavens at every opportunity and dance among the fireflies, the buffalo, the waves at the beach. If Tree of Life was about the son who felt pulled between the forces of Nature and Grace, To the Wonder is a kind of prequel-in-spirit in which we see how uneasily Nature and Grace live together.

So you see, it’s not really a romantic movie after all. Well, not lowly human romance, anyway. The priest (Javier Bardem) is there for a very significant thematic reason: to remind us how far we’ve fallen from the Grace of God. (This movie and Tree of Life feel intensely spiritual but don’t seem to show specific allegiance to any creed. God here is, as AA puts it, “as we understand him.” Or her. With Malick, we can’t be sure.) A little has been made of the way some of the plot seems to mirror Malick’s own romantic past, but I’d say he’s just writing what he knows as an on-ramp onto the highway of higher mysteries. Nature and Grace are mutually infatuated but can never reconcile; their aims are too different. Affleck, who sees daily what his species has done to the planet, cannot love. Kurylenko seeks companionship but cannot, will not, be tied down.

Your response to all this depends extremely heavily on how much philosophizing and pretty pictures you’re willing to accept in lieu of a story. I seem to have grown tired in recent years of the stuff Hollywood expects me to accept as stories, and so I have moved a little closer to the Malick camp, without quite being sold on the Master a hundred percent. Tree of Life and To the Wonder both fall into the “interesting, yet boring” category, ravishing but at an aesthetic remove dramatically. For instance, we see Affleck and Kurylenko arguing but never hear what they’re fighting about; we see the end of Affleck’s relationship with the second woman (Rachel McAdams) but have no idea why or how it ended. (In voice-over, McAdams whispers dejectedly that Affleck “made it into nothing” with his “lust.” Okay.) Again, I think we’re supposed to take these love affairs as Love Affairs, which in turn signify not mere matters of the heart but the titans of creation and destruction at war within all of us. Or something.

Also, I could be wrong but I believe this is the first Terrence Malick film that’s ever seen the inside of a supermarket. He finds beauty and ecstasy even there. But we don’t find out what groceries the characters buy or why they eat them, and I think that’s a useful thing to keep in mind when approaching this or any Malick film. They’re just in the supermarket.

Antiviral

April 14, 2013

Antiviral.jpg.scaled696-940x380Is it strictly fair to judge a young artist’s work against the work of his or her parent? In some cases the notion seems irrelevant. Sofia Coppola, for instance, has made her own distinctive mark with films rather unlike those by her father Francis. If Brandon Cronenberg had been consciously interested in stepping out of the shadow of his father David, he might have made a romantic comedy or a western — anything but a sterile, slow-moving biological thriller that unavoidably raises comparisons to Cronenberg pére’s early films like Rabid and Shivers. Cronenberg fils has written and directed Antiviral, in which celebrity-obsessed people pay to be infected with viruses that came from their favorite stars.

There’s a seed of satire in this, but only a seed. Cronenberg doesn’t have much to say about celebrity culture or its reductio ad absurdum in the form of fans vying to catch a famous strain of herpes (or lining up to eat artificial steaks cloned from the muscle cells of stars). Most of Antiviral is a poky and mannered affair focusing on Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee of the Lucas Clinic who smuggles celeb viruses in his own body. He becomes fixated on ailing star Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), who’s dying of a mystery virus. The body-consciousness of the premise links Antiviral to your choice of David Cronenberg films, including Videodrome and even Crash, in which some of the characters wanted to re-enact famous celebrity car accidents. It was funnier there.

That’s definitely one thing missing: humor, or at least wit. David Cronenberg can do deadpan with the best of them, but there’s an active and playful imagination behind the poker face. People may have talked and acted like the undead in Crash, but the quiet, subversive comedy lay in the contrast between the characters’ dry-ice demeanor and the outrageous situations they put themselves in, helplessly and obsessively. In Antiviral, everyone wanders around as if underwater, inside hermetically-sealed compositions that scream “art movie.” The young David Cronenberg did this sort of thing in his early student films, but he had the sense and the mercy to keep them an hour or shorter. This goddamn thing crawls along for an hour and fifty minutes, with little to look at for long stretches except the unpleasant, stringy-haired, mush-mouthed Caleb Landry Jones as he limps around scowling and eventually drooling blood.

Oh, yes, it does get bloody. We see dark gore being vomited up a number of times, or coughed up, or smeared onto gleaming white walls. After a while we come to look forward to the red, because it’s a change from the movie’s relentless black-on-white color scheme. Almost everyone in the movie is pale, too, and I suppose the only reason the filmmakers didn’t go all the way and shoot in black and white was that the movie would’ve looked even more pretentious than it already does. Everyone whispers, and what little music we get is discordant noise, and aesthetically the whole thing is like being stuck in a dentist’s chair for two hours. There’s no life here, no passion, and we certainly don’t care about Syd March’s ill-defined mission to find out about that mystery virus. Antiviral is what happens when you make a movie around a fleetingly interesting idea but forget to find a story in it.

About an hour into it, Malcolm McDowell turns up as a doctor treating Hannah Geist, and we lean towards him gratefully. He doesn’t camp it up — he’s as quiet as everyone else — but the simple theatrical snap of his voice is a blessing. Antiviral is anti-entertainment in a way that even David Cronenberg’s most stubbornly interiorized work never is; it’s boring. I hate to say this; David Cronenberg himself has long since abandoned this type of body-politic chiller, and I’d hoped that his son might have the chops to pick up the mantle. But if anyone not related to Cronenberg had made Antiviral, I’d have the same complaints. Perhaps now that Brandon Cronenberg has gotten this out of his system, he’ll feel free to make his own way, his own movies.

Melancholia

November 13, 2011

In Melancholia, which has just gotten a theatrical release after a month of playing on cable on-demand, it’s the end of the world as we know it and Kirsten Dunst feels fine. It’s about the only time she does feel fine. As Justine, an unreachably depressed young woman, Dunst takes her place alongside a gallery of other female sufferers in the work of writer-director Lars von Trier. Like those others, Dunst puts in a career-best performance, sinking under the weight of self-lacerating despair. Justine’s condition is never explained, as it often isn’t explained in life (although her parents are played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling — there’s a big clue right there). In the movie’s first half, she gamely tries to slog through her wedding party, and the people closest to her, like her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), know full well how much work goes into each empty smile.

That the world ends in Melancholia — extinguished by a rogue planet also called Melancholia — is revealed in the opening moments; we get squished to the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which recurs throughout the film as the wayward green ball in the sky draws closer. After that, we endure the wedding party, held at the sumptuous country house of Claire’s filthy-rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who fancies himself an armchair astronomer. Justine has married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), a well-meaning dud who comes off as though Andy from Parks and Recreation had wandered into an apocalyptic art film. He doesn’t last long. In the second half, Justine, having shed Michael and most of what’s left of her sanity, is living with Claire and John and their little son. As Melancholia bears down, the formerly stable Claire grows more and more frantic — John assures her the planet will harmlessly pass by, but she can’t bring herself to believe him — and Justine seems more and more placid. Her life is already over. Global death is just a formality.

Von Trier went through a period of depression a few years ago, and he worked it out in his previous film, the notorious Antichrist, in which nature seemed charged by grotesque and demonic energy. Melancholia is something of a bookend piece, equally gorgeous, not nearly as physically appalling, but almost as disturbing. It’s not a “horror movie,” exactly, but few images at the movies this year have been as frightening as the view of Melancholia growing larger in five-minute intervals through a handmade planet-viewer. At heart, it’s an epic about response to life and death. John, of course, seeks to master the mystery, just like Willem Dafoe in Antichrist and all the other clueless men in the von Trier portfolio. (The filmmaker gets tarred with the “misogynist” brush a lot, but his men are idiots and his women routinely win his actresses top prizes.) Claire clings to her life so tightly she can’t bear the thought of nothingness, while Justine has burned through despair into a kind of Zen-Buddhist shrug. If Antichrist was written in the throes of depression, Melancholia is a report on the condition after the fact.

The symbolism may strike some as a little neat: Melancholia has been “hiding behind the sun,” and then it emerges, blocking out everything else — much like the mood it’s named after. The entire grandly morose film could be read as a suicidal woman’s reverie on her own world ending. (Many depressives, squeamish about taking the final step off the ledge, fantasize about a vast catastrophe that will take their decision and their responsibility out of their hands.) But von Trier’s filmmaking, as always, is elegantly alive, never sodden with the script’s significance. The first half, well-populated by von Trier regulars like Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier, tosses in enough eccentricities (what’s up with John Hurt tucking spoons into his jacket pocket?) to counteract Justine’s moping. The second half is sparser and stiller, focusing on the sisters and their emotional preparation for doom.

Images may stick with you: a horse falling to the ground in extreme slow motion; Claire attempting to outrace the apocalypse in a golf cart; Kirsten Dunst’s features ravaged by loathing. Those looking for sharp internal logic should look elsewhere. Lars von Trier uses a literal worldwide disaster as a backdrop for a tiny, specific personal story about a woman who’s sick of pretending to be happy and who can’t help throwing everything away, cutting herself off from life so definitively that the end of the world is just the last of a lifelong list of things she can’t control. Giving up the illusion of control has delivered her into a kind of grace. Justine has already died every time the hated sun has risen yet again; soon it will all be over. Von Trier’s plotting isn’t always up to the level of his visuals or his emotionally-loaded philosophizing, but on the increasingly timid stage of world cinema he continues to be a giant among ants.

Enter the Void

October 2, 2010

A lot of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void unfolds through the eyes of its protagonist Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) — literally. The camera takes his point of view to the extent of blinking when he blinks. I, on the other hand, spent much of the two hour-and-18-minute running time not blinking. Enter the Void is not for the impatient (or those susceptible to motion sickness, since Noé’s vertiginous camera swirls around near-constantly during the last hour or so); it’s a massive, epic experiment that asks and presumes to answer the biggest of big questions — what happens after you die? Oscar, a low-level American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his exotic-dancer sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), is shot by police early on in the film, and most of the subsequent narrative follows his soul, or his spirit, or whatever, as it floats around Tokyo keeping tabs on the people he knew in life. There’s his scruffy friend Alex (Cyril Roy), who has a crush on Linda. There’s one of his buyers Vincent (Olly Alexander), whose mother has slept with Oscar on the sly. There’s his supplier Bruno (Ed Spear), said to have strange predilections involving ripe young buyers. We also travel with Oscar into his past, marred by his parents’ car accident when he and Linda were very young, and scarred by their resultant lack of development — Oscar has a definite mother/sister/breast fixation, and Linda herself likes to kiss Oscar in a decidedly unsisterly way.

If you’re going to make a lengthy meditation on life and afterlife, you might as well set it in the seamy sections of neon-drenched Tokyo, present a drug dealer and a stripper as your leads, and top it all off with gouts of state-of-the-art fractal eye-fucks. (I’d hardly expect a bold filmmaker to tell this story from the viewpoint of a film critic. Blink, watch a movie, blink, eat some pizza and surf the web, blink, write the review…) Enter the Void is a monster, often mesmerizing, sometimes trying. Noé, author of the polarizing and galvanizing I Stand Alone and Irreversible, sets the movie up as his grand statement, the dense volume his other work was leading up to. It attempts to nail down, in pure-cinema vocabulary, the highest of high mysteries — the eternal yin/yang connection between sex and death, eros and thanatos.

Nobody will remember this for the performances, although Paz de la Huerta’s furiously grieving Linda has a formidable freak-out, and the non-actor Cyril Roy makes something scuzzily amiable out of Alex. Nathaniel Brown, another non-actor, is blank in a way that works for the film, since Oscar’s experience is supposed to be ours (and we hardly ever see anything other than the back of his head anyway). The Oscar’s-POV style pulls us into his head, and even if we wouldn’t do what he does, or don’t share his particular psychological quirks, we’re with him by cinematic default. The look of the film is by turns grainy, razor-sharp, blurry, elegiac, normal, neon-strobe hell. Whatever team gets to master this beast for Blu-ray has their work cut out for them. Oh, and at one point we and Oscar go on a floating tour through the “Love Hotel,” where various couples go at it joyously or joylessly, their naughty bits glowing or giving off wafts of sexual energy visible, I suppose, only to voyeuristic spirits.

Enter the Void takes us up to the moment of death and beyond — convincingly, I guess; certainly nobody else has conducted an inquiry into these matters at such length and at such an intense pitch. The movie is metaphysically disorienting — you carry it with you after it’s over, because you’re still blinking, and you still feel as though you’re in Oscar’s headspace. Noé clearly expended an inhuman amount of effort and imagination and post-production elbow grease; if he announced that this would be his swan song, I wouldn’t be surprised — how do you follow up Enter the Void? The film will strike viewers as brilliant and profound, or vapid and pretentious, in roughly equal measure, much like Noé’s other work; it can stand alongside recent cult epics like Synecdoche, New York and Inception, and may even come within semen-spurting distance of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski — poet-philosophers who brought their rigorous yet becalmed vision to bear on the essence of this trip we’re all on.

A gauntlet has been thrown here, I feel. Noé is not the first to try the individual tricks here, but the way he puts them all together, in service of something far larger than just a movie, is ferociously and uniquely his own. Whether you adore or loathe it, it takes a fearless, barrier-shattering behemoth like this film to kick a slumbering cinema up a step or two. Enter the Void is a real next-level achievement.

Life During Wartime

July 4, 2010

Less amusing than despairing, Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’ follow-up to his controversial 1998 gem Happiness, tracks its people through a haze of regret and trauma. The movie uses many of the same characters from Happiness, played here by different actors, and I suspect anyone who hasn’t seen the earlier film will be a little lost through this one. Happiness haunts Life During Wartime like a ghost, and indeed there are possible ghosts in the movie, accusatory spirits drifting into people’s lives. The film’s working title was Forgiveness, and that — and the lack thereof — is the theme here.

Fans of Happiness may recall that it focused on three adult sisters: suburban housewife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson in ‘98, Allison Janney now), flustered singleton Joy (Jane Adams then, Shirley Henderson now), and tortured poet Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle then, Ally Sheedy now). Trish’s husband turned out to be a pedophile, Joy flitted from one dysfunctional man to another, and Helen developed a strange thing for Allan (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a perv who sexually harassed random women over the phone. Here, Allan (now played by Michael K. Williams) is married to Joy, though he hasn’t quite given up his twisted proclivities, and Trish is trying to forget ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds), who’s just out of jail and wants to make sure his now-college-age son Billy (Chris Marquette) won’t follow in his footsteps.

Like the first film, Life During Wartime is full of endless ghastly conversations that redefine “awkward.” Trish’s 13-year-old middle son Timmy, for instance, asks her precisely how it is that pedophilic men can rape boys if they have the same parts. Or take Joy, visited by pathetic former flame Andy (Jon Lovitz in the first movie, Paul Reubens here), who killed himself after she dumped him; her husband has unwittingly bought her (on eBay) the same ashtray Andy gave her and then took back in Happiness. (I took one look at that ashtray and was probably as chilled as Joy is.) The restless spirit Andy wants to rekindle things, and, rebuffed, he launches once again into desperate vituperation (remember Lovitz’s “You’re shit. I’m champagne”?).

I doubt that Solondz, whose dyspeptic yet precise control never wavers, is taking the film into the paranormal; Andy and other dark figures from the past (including Bill, a walking, breathing ghost) symbolize past guilt and heartbreak that will never die. Solondz continues to make films as though it were still the mid-’90s and there were actually an audience for this sort of intractably bleak art-house film. I’m stunned, yet glad, that anyone gave him the money to make this movie, which offers little or no hope for its characters and very few laughs that aren’t choked gargles of disbelief. (The film should probably be seen with an audience if possible, just to hear the collective discomfort in the room.)

Again and again, people ask for forgiveness or question whether it’s possible in some cases. What does Solondz think? He doesn’t say. He just puts us among these walking dead and lets us observe them cringing their way through the long days and longer nights. Life During Wartime lacks the stinging clarity of Happiness, and its abbreviated running time makes it feel more like an addendum than a second volume, but it’s still galvanizingly perverse enough to stand out in what may be, so far, the blandest movie year in recent memory.


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