I run hot and cold on the work of Todd Solondz. Quite like "Dollhouse" and "Happiness," sort of dig "Palindromes," and have no real use for "Storytelling". Short answer.
I think he's very good at creating a very particular dramatic reality. 'Cause he's not doing reality. And once I know a filmmaker's not trying to make a movie that is "real," but is instead theatrical, stylized, in some way heightened... I'm judging it by how well it does what it's trying to do. That's where I think he's really very skilled. His films have one of the most distinct cadences of any filmmaker working today. I think he's a guy who would have been dramatically at home running a small theater program at a liberal arts college somewhere, staging these dramas he writes, variations on the same characters over time, played by successive classes of actors, no one owning any of the roles but simply adding one more voice to the ways it's been said.
That's what his movies appear to be at this point. He's certainly not trying to blow your mind with some secretive narrative trick or high concept each time out. No one would ever confuse his filmography with the work of M. Night Shyamalan, for example. What Solondz does feels like it belongs to an entirely different industry than the mainstream, the commercial. It's about as personal a filmography as anyone working right now.
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This is most directly a sequel to "Happiness." Only it's really not. Nobody's played by the same people. Nobody's necessarily played the same way. It's got a radically different character than "Happiness." Solondz is in a different place as an artist, and you have to wonder if starting a family has had a pardigm-shifting impact on him. "Life During Wartime" is a film about the ghosts you literally carry around with you, and about the idea of forgiveness in the face of the impossible to forgive. As a self-contained film, it's partially successful. Solondz spends a large part of his running time just getting his cast revved up, and then just as he's got all his storylines in play, the movie's over.
It's a bitter pill, even with a somewhat more optimistic Solondz, but the cast seems game for it. They play every single beat without flinching, and there's some tough stuff in there. Ciarin Hinds picks up where Dylan Baker left off, and now he's the past come back for his family, who picked up and moved and tried to rebuild their lives. His return means different things to different people, and it seems like his son Billy (Chris Marquette, who's never been better than he is in this) is the one who is most powerfully affected by it, as you'd expect after the ending of the first film. Shirley Henderson takes over for Jane Adams, and I think it's a smart choice. Henderson's a strange little bird, very interesting, slightly ageless (wasn't she just playing a dead teenager in the "Harry Potter" films?), and she's magnetic enough to be the center of the picture. Solondz anchors it on her, and it pays off. Michael Lerner, Allison Janney, and Ally Sheedy all do solid character work in relatively brief onscreen time, and Michael K. Williams (so great on "The Wire") and Paul Reubens both go above and beyond with what they're given to do. I certainly think the cast does exemplary work.
Perhaps the way to approach new Solondz at this point is that you know what the experience is going to be, and you're just checking in to see where it's at. It's definitely good Solondz, and if you're in the mood for exactly that, "Life During Wartime" will most likely please. It just won't win over anyone who wasn't already sold.
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