Friday, August 17, 2012


A Todd Solondz movie is largely an in or out proposition.  He doesn't make family friendly fare; regularly interrogating social taboos in his films, and there's little to no effort on his part to dumb down or soften his stories for wider acceptance.  After scoring a cult following for divisive early works like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, there's been a noticeable drop off in audience numbers and critical support for his subsequent releases.  You'd be totally forgiven at this late date for writing Solondz off as a has-been miserablist taking out his angst on both his characters and viewers. 

Chances are, if you hold that opinion, you didn't see his last movie, the darkly, funny Life During Wartime, and probably plan on avoiding his latest comedy, Dark Horse.  That last move would be a mistake.  Straight up, Dark Horse is the best film Solondz has made in over a decade and, without hyperbole, I'd go as far as to label it one of the funniest releases of the year.

Dark Horse takes place, like most all of Solondz' films, in the suburbs.  Jordan Gelber plays Abe, a college dropout in his thirties, still living with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and (barely) working at his father's firm.  It's safe to say that Abe's a bit of a non-starter, an observation that is only reinforced when contrasted with his brother Richard's (Justin Bartha) success as a physician.  Very early in the film, Abe encounters Miranda (Selma Blair); a thoroughly depressed woman with a similar living situation, at a wedding and basically sweet talks a phone number out of her.

An uneasy relationship develops between the two, due chiefly to Abe's persistence and the absurdly positive facade that he adopts whenever Miranda is present.  Solondz explores Abe's mood swings through both simple observation and the relentlessly saccharine pop music that enters the soundtrack via Abe's cell phone and the stereo of his comically large, yellow Hummer.  This highly obtrusive music serves a dual purpose, working as both an obvious (and hilarious) punchline and as a counterpoint to Abe's unacknowledged and growing angry, depressive state.

As it proceeds, the film ends up moving into areas that aren't necessarily meant to reflect reality as much as comment on internal damage wrought from years of not living up to one's potential.  Some audience members might have difficulty taking the leap as the film transitions away from a more literal mode of storytelling.  Personally, I wanted to watch Dark Horse a second time as soon as it was over.  Solondz doesn't pull punches or make it easy to embrace his work but the humor he spins out of the wretched lives of his characters has a whiff of truth and authenticity that can't be denied.

Highly recommended.

Dark Horse begins its run at Living Room Theaters on Friday, August 17th.  More info available here.

Remember to find and "like" us on our Facebook page.
Subscribe to the blog's feed here.


It's been 3+ years since locally-based animation house Laika released their first feature Coraline.  Since then, the studio and Coraline's director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) parted ways, causing many to wonder what shape their next feature would take.  Cue ParaNorman, another stop-motion animated children's film that retains the supernatural context of Coraline while chucking the pervading, overly serious tone of Laika's debut.

Co-directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, ParaNorman relays the story of Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young social outcast living in the New England town of Blithe Hollow who can, to quote a popular 90s thriller, "see dead people," much to the chagrin of his father (Jeff Garlin) who is frightened by his son's increasingly peculiar behavior.  It's not long before Norman and his only friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) are approached by Blithe Hollow's resident hermit Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) who's looking to recruit Norman's gifts in the fight against zombies and a witch's curse.

Visually, this is one heck of stunner, among the best looking stop-motion animations released by anyone outside of Aardman Animations.  The characters are all clean lines, loose-limbed and expressive.  Best of all, the backdrop of Blithe Hollow, a tourist town shamelessly trading in on its dark history (resembling Salem, Massachusetts in more than a few ways) is filled to the brim with witch-themed attractions, offering a colorful array of oddly named businesses ("Witchy Wieners," for instance) that catch the eye throughout the picture.

Story-wise, Norman's family life, supernatural abilities, and persecution by a school bully keep things lively and interesting.  But, once Norman and Neil set off to stop the curse, the film settles into a pattern embraced by far too many kids films nowadays: the plot points diminish in favor of something resembling a treasure hunt (a few of the Harry Potter films operated this way, too) with the characters needing to accomplish one goal before setting off on another.  Kids are unlikely to be bothered by this development but adults may find the thinly-veiled repetition monotonous.  Fortunately, there's always something visually arresting onscreen to distract whatever complaints one might have about the story.  All in all, this is a solid, fun film with better than average use of 3D technology.

Oh, and a side note: in a less than scientific study, I noticed during last night's screening of the film that kids don't really get artful fades to white.  During the three or four occasions that it happened in ParaNorman, many children in the audience thought something was wrong with the projection, eliciting questions to parents along the lines of "what happened?"

ParaNorman opens at several Portland area theaters on Friday, August 17th.  More info available here.

Remember to find and "like" us on our Facebook page.
Subscribe to the blog's feed here.
submit to reddit