-->
Reviews

'Life During Wartime' An Unfamiliar Twist on a Seemingly Familiar Tale

Todd Solondz revisits his characters from Happiness using different actors to deliver a biting, poetic essay of American life in the wake of a different kind of foreign invasion.


Life During Wartime

Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Allison Janney, Ciarán Hinds, Michael Lerner
Release date: 2011-07-26

Since the American invasion – and consequent wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken place so far away from the Western hemisphere, it’s become strange for some Americans -- those not closely affected by the 9/11 attacks, and those who do not personally know the soldiers sent to such far away places -- to acknowledge that these are indeed times of war. The differences between these days and the great world wars of the past aren’t only found in the location of the battlefields (WWII, for example, pretty much used the entire planet as its deadly playground) but in the social changes that society has endured.

In these times the internet has become a tool that both connects and isolates us, while media has taught us that anything and everything should be used for personal consuming. Whether we have become more desensitized or not isn’t the question at hand, the dilemma here is how much of this has interfered with our global vision.

Leave it to Todd Solondz to try and answer these questions in the pithily titled Life During Wartime, a sequel of sorts to his controversial 1998 film Happiness. Keeping with the themes explored in the previous chapter, Solondz studies the nature of forgiveness using the Jordan sisters -- Joy, Trish and Helen – as his measuring points. The sisters, as you might recall from Happiness aren’t precisely beacons of perfection; they endure deaths, selfishness and even child abuse at the hands of the men in their lives.

What comes off as the first twist in this film, is that all of these characters are played by different actors. This might not be an issue for those who have never seen Happiness, in fact Solondz reveals in a Q&A included in this DVD version, that it might be “advantageous” to approach these characters for the very first time.

It’s not difficult to understand what’s going on. In a nutshell, the misfortunately named Joy (Shirley Henderson) is coping with the sexual problems of her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) while dealing with surprise visits by the ghost of her former boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens), who committed suicide after she rejected him. Trish (Allison Janney) has been trying to move on with her life after her husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds) was sent to prison for raping a child. She pretends he’s dead and keeps his sentence a secret from her younger son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) who, with the approach of his bar mitzvah, begins to ask her questions about what it means to become a man.

When the story begins, we see Trish starting a relationship with the much older Harvey (Michael Lerner) whom she confesses is not her type at all, but it might just be what she needs to finally achieve normalcy.

The action this time around has been moved from New Jersey to Florida (or the best version of it they could come up with, given that the film was shot in Puerto Rico) and the extraordinary cinematographer Ed Lachman creates poetic irony by coming up with a warm, almost burnt out color palette, that places the characters’ misery in a climate where it shouldn’t be fathomable.

The action moves to California when Joy visits her sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) for a couple of scenes, and it becomes even more obvious that the whole idea of the film is to subvert our notion of who these people really are. The scenes in California are bathed in milky whites that evoke some sort of celestial peacefulness. Inversely, Sheedy plays Helen like a hellish manifestation, as she pulls out the passive aggressive guns on Joy. Her scenes might be the richest in the film, because her line delivery taps into the essence of Solondz’s oeuvre, thus trying to get the audience to empathize with those its learned to fear and hate.

It’s true, nobody might want to spend time with these people, but not to do so takes us away from observing different aspects of humanity. Solondz never treats his characters like freaks or monsters – despite some of them calling themselves just that – he shows them an overwhelming compassion that makes us look twice at them, and try to find the light within. Of course it helps that the ensemble is so fearless.

One of the superb bonus featurettes in the DVD shows the love all these players had for their director. Sheedy, Williams and Hinds particularly seem to be in complete awe of the way in which he treats the characters as pieces of himself, without turning them into obnoxious celebrations of his own flaws. Williams leads us to the rather fascinating point that he was cast because of the scar across his face, as if the director wanted to manifest physical signs of the things these people carry inside.

Throughout the film, Solondz makes an excellent point in reminding us that Americans' notion of war has changed. And even if he assures us that he’s not particularly interested in symbols, the film thrives with them. Whether it be with the colors he uses, the recurrence of dreams and ethereal situations in some characters or even the new cast itself, the film demands to be read by different individual layers. “Sometimes it’s better not to understand” says Trish as if Solondz is telling us to surrender to the plot’s turns with the same thirst for life the Jordan sisters seem to crave.

In the film’s centerpiece, Charlotte Rampling appears, playing a stranger who seduces the newly out of prison Bill. “I see a man and he’s alone and he’s straight” she says to justify the lack of sensitivity she needs to conceive this one night stand. As they engage in an intense tête-à-tête, Bill’s lack of life seems to receive a jolt by this woman’s unorthodox views and as she looks for sexual connection, he tries to cope with the bigger challenges, including finding forgiveness. She condescendingly reminds him that only losers expect to receive such a thing, and we understand, in these post 9/11 times, that such wars are fought within ourselves.

8

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special. -- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image