Dark Horse (US - BD RA)
Jonathan gets a glimpse of an unusually sympathetic Todd Solondz..
A thirty-something guy with arrested development (Jordan Gelber) falls for thirty-something girl with arrested development (Selma Blair), but moving out of his junior high school bedroom proves too much. Tragedy ensues. Writer and director Todd Solondz examines the irretrievably of youth and the mercilessness of time passing in Dark Horse, a melancholy and idiosyncratic comedy. (From the official site)
Dark Horse is the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber). He's a character we all know. If we don't know somebody like him, we've seen him in movies before. He is in his 30's, he lives at home with his parents, and he has a job that his father gave him. And he isn't any good at it. He also collects action figures, if you weren't already assuming that cliche. He clings to his youth and when anybody tries to nudge him in a productive direction, he retaliates with anger and screams oppression. He takes his mother's (Mia Farrow) money by beating her games of backgammon and he puts up a fight every time his father (Christopher Walken) questions him about work or his personal life. He is not remotely sympathetic, but there is an admirable go-getter spirit in him. He sees himself as a "dark horse" of his family, born in the wrong times. The film's soundtrack is flooded with sappy optimistic pop music that signifies his internal, yet hollow optimism. He tries to find symbolism in his unhappiness, the way most people do, but he does not take any responsibility for his failures. He meets a girl named Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding and awkwardly converses his way into getting her phone number. It is clear that something isn't quite right with her. We later learn that she's on the mend and is heavily medicated; also living with her parents.
The two of them form an unlikely bond, and Abe convinces the overly medicated Miranda to marry him. If you're familiar with Todd Solondz work, you know this could get into incredibly messy and downright depressing territory. Solondz's characters aren't usually happy people. His films often focus on lives full of turmoil and misery, and he has never been afraid to show the ugly sides of people. What redeems a lot of his work is that he finds universal truths (even if they aren't pretty) and painfully dark comedy through these characters, but I've never wrapped up a Todd Solondz film feeling like I've seen a probing characters study. I've certainly never come out of one feeling charmed. For the first half of Dark Horse it seemed that Solondz had created his most unsympathetic character yet, and he wasn't making any great observations or big laughs off of Abe either. But midway through the film something unusual started to happen. Even though things are looking good for Abe with his recent engagement, the chance at a happy life is intimidating to him. Abe's subconscious begins to take over the film. Characters we've met in normal circumstances appear to Abe as he imagines them, and he expels his frustrations and deep-seeded insecurities to these figures.
It doesn't entirely work, but it gave the film a refreshing new angle. I have to admit that a part of me felt sympathetic for this character that I wanted nothing to do with earlier in the film. I give much of the credit to Jordan Gelber, who makes Abe entirely believable both as an obnoxious man-child and as a grown man with crippling self-doubt. He's backed by a strong supporting cast. Selma Blair feels underutilized, but she's great when she is on screen. His parents are played by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken. Farrow does a good job of playing that concerned mother that is also too afraid to give tough love to a son in desperate need of it. Walken's father figure is the opposite. He isn't a mean father, but he tries to push Abe in the right direction through more harsh methods. The highlight of the supporting cast is Donna Murphy as Marie. In the real world, Marie is a gentle co-worker who helps Abe with his work so he can keep his job. Her personality takes a different turn in Abe's subconscious, and the film never feels more vital and alive than the imagined scenes between Abe and Marie.
This is the first film I've had the opportunity to review from Virgil Films. They have released Dark Horse on a BD-25 disc with a solid 1080p transfer. Normally BD-25's are not preferable because they don't have room for an amazing bit rate, but since this is an 88 minute film without any extra features, it is plenty of disc space for a good looking transfer. As I briefly stated in the review, the film's soundtrack has a very poppy optimistic feel to it. The look of the film is no different. For a movie about dark insecurities, it is awfully colorful. Warm colors like the red in Abe's room, or the interior design of a Toys"R"Us store are especially vibrant. The film was shot on the Red One digital camera, so detail is exceptionally sharp and the picture has a very clean look to it. There are some noticeable marks from compression, but they are really only apparent in a couple of shots. In one scene where Abe leaves the room and the camera stays completely still, you can see pixels moving erratically in certain detailed areas of the picture where the compression is not consistent. These instances are so minor that they're barely worth bringing up though. On the whole, this transfer looks very good and should not disappoint any fans of this independent drama.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is not as lively as the video transfer. I'm willing to bet the audio mix for this film was not very ambitious to begin with. Dark Horse has a very intentionally flat nature to many scenes, and the sound isn't doing any extra work to liven it up. With the exception of some scenes taking place in traffic and in the rain, I did not notice any activity in the rear channels. The cheery pop soundtrack is nice and loud, filling up the front area of the room nicely. Dialogue is still perfectly easy to make out, which is the primary purpose of the mix for a film of this scope.
Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
While I can't call Dark Horse an engaging character study that I'd like to revisit, it marks an unusual turn for Todd Solondz. It is the first film of his where I genuinely felt that he was trying to understand and sympathize with one of his difficult characters. He is helped enormously by the underrated Jordan Gelber, who effortlessly portrays Abe's repulsiveness and eventual unlikely charm. This Blu-ray release comes with a solid video transfer and an audio track that gets the job done, but sadly there are no extras.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 13th November 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Easter Egg: No
Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Jordan Gelber, Slema Blair, Christopher Walken
Genre: Comedy and Drama
Length: 88 minutes
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