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Feature


Life During Wartime is Todd Solondz’s sequel to the 1998 film Happiness. The characters are the same, but they are curiously played by different actors. The film follows multiple characters that are connected by family. Joy (Shirley Henderson) skips out on her ex-con lover Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) and is haunted by visions of her old boyfriend who committed suicide (Paul Reubens). Meanwhile, Trish (Allison Janney) tries to get her life together and meets a “wonderfully normal” man named Harvey Wiener (a named some Solondz fans may recognize, played by Michael Lerner). Trish’s ex-husband, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), is a reformed paedophile who just left prison, and is trying to get in touch with his estranged family that pretends he is dead.

 Michael Kenneth Williams in Life During Wartime - Blu-ray
Todd Solondz films are not for everybody. Happiness in particular is one of those films that I consider great, but I would never think too poorly of someone who strongly disliked it. It takes on strong subjects like paedophilia with an unprecedented sense of humour and startling sincerity that catches you off guard. Solondz keeps to his usual uncompromising approach in Life During Wartime, but the film is strongly lacking in direction and fresh ideas. It follows in the same footsteps as Happiness, observing the same lives of emotionally afflicted people who keep making the same mistakes over and over again in their search for “happiness”, but this time Solondz examines the nature of forgiveness too. It certainly seems like an appropriate theme following the events of Happiness, but it feels mostly unexplored by the end of this movie. I much prefer it when character’s philosophies are demonstrated in actions, or in conversations that aren’t explicitly about their personal beliefs. In this film, characters speak very directly about their philosophies, often using the words “forgetting” and “forgiving” when doing so. Even when it is coming from a precocious young kid, it feels like a lazy way to explore the theme, and it didn’t resonate with me at all.

Aside from falling flat thematically, the movie just isn’t very entertaining. It tries hard at times, but still lacks the audacious dark comedy that made Happiness so memorable. The script is to blame, often shooting for quirkiness and irreverence, but lacking the charm and sincerity to pull it off. My interest in the film was mostly maintained by the performances and the wonderful cinematography of Edward Lachman (whose credits include I’m Not There. and Erin Brockovich). If it has one thing going for it, Life During Wartime looks very good. His choice of bright colours and the sun-baked appearance of each scene give the film an appealing storybook appearance that, along with the pretty music, juxtaposes the bleak subject matter in an intriguing way.

 Allison Janney in Life During Wartime - Blu-ray
His decision to replace each of the actors with new ones for this film (with sometimes wildly different appearances) ends up being the only very interesting thing about Life During Wartime. This works largely because he has populated his movie with an enormously talented cast. Rather than try and evoke the actors that previously filled their roles, the new cast members make the parts their own. The strongest example of this is Ciarán Hinds, a tremendously talented actor who deserves to be more well-known. He takes on the role of Bill, the paedophile father originally played by Dylan Baker in Happiness. Baker played the part as a much more extroverted, almost enthusiastic character. Hinds takes the quiet, tortured approach. In a truly subverting move, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who played a perverted prank-caller in Happiness has been replaced by Michael Kenneth Williams (who many know as Omar from The Wire). He’s only in a couple scenes, but he is terrific here. Other performance highlights include Paul Reubens as a pathetic yet disturbing ghost an ex-lover, and Shirley Henderson whose distinguished wounded voice brings a fragility and innocence to the character of Joy. It is fun to watch the great cast work with these characters in a new way, but when you look past the casting tricks it becomes evident that Solondz doesn’t really have anything new or interesting to say about these characters.      

 Life During Wartime - Blu-ray

Video


Shot on the RED digital camera and transferred to Blu-ray by Criterion, Life During Wartime has a very clean and crisp 1080p (h264/AVC) transfer. Aside from a few minor artefacts, this is a flawless video presentation. Videophiles that look carefully will be able to notice some distracting digital noise in a few darker areas of the picture. I also noticed at least once instance of banding where light touches a wall in a dorm room. The look of the film is very stylized, with saturated bright colours. As mentioned in the review, there is a sun-baked warm appearance that makes skin tones look burnt. As a result, there aren’t any pure whites. Occasionally the dimly lit scenes show a weird light reflection on skin tones that looks quite unnatural. It looks almost as if the image has been slightly overexposed (see the girl’s face in the fifth screen cap), drowning out some of the detail. After doing a little research, I learned that this was filmed on one of the earlier models of the RED camera, which is known for having some limitations with realistic skin tones in certain lighting conditions. Thankfully this only happens in a couple of scenes, and most people probably won’t even notice it. According to the included booklet, this transfer was supervised and approved by cinematographer Ed Lachman.

Audio


Criterion gives the film a solid DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English track. As with most dramas this is a fairly quiet movie with dialogue kept front and centre where it belongs. Sometimes the clarity of the dialogue is a bit distorted by the recording environment, such as kitchen scenes which have a slightly distracting echo to them. There is little directionality to the sound mix, but the rear channels get some usage when there are distant lawnmowers outside or muffled chatter in a crowded restaurant. Loud techno music fills the room briefly in one scene, and was the only time the LFE channel really made itself noticeable. There really isn’t much else to say about this track. It sounds great for what it is, but it is not the type of material you’d expect to give your sound system a workout.

 Dylan Riley Snyder in Life During Wartime - Blu-ray

Extras


Criterion gives Life During Wartime a healthy smattering of extras. According to the box, there is a feature called Making “Life During Wartime”, but on the disc it is more appropriately titled Actor’s Reflections. We also have a series of features dedicated to Ed Lachman, the film’s cinematographer. Aside from this, there is an original theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay by film critic David Sterritt. There are no subtitles included with the special features.

Ask Todd (44:46, Audio Only): This audio presentation is a long Q&A session with the director, Todd Solondz. In March 2011, Criterion asked fans to send in e-mail questions for him to answer. As a result, we have this special feature. To give you a few examples of the material, he talks about his influences, such as growing up in New Jersey or the films of François Truffaut. He seems like a very modest guy who understands that his work is not for everybody. At one point he explains that recasting the movie helped to reveal new nuances in the characters. He calls it a “quasi-sequel” to Happiness. There is a lot covered in this segment, and fans who want to hear the origin of ideas from the man himself will find it a very worthwhile listening experience.

Actor’s Reflections (29:54, HD): I really enjoyed this special feature where the camera spends time with the actors from the film as they discuss what it was like to embody these poor souls and work with Todd Solondz. Highlights include Michael Kenneth William’s introduction to Todd Solondz, and Hinds shares some wonderful insight into the film and what he saw in it. There is no behind-the-scenes footage, just scenes from the film interweaved with interview footage of the actors.

Ed Lachman: On Life During Wartime (10:52, HD): Ed Lachman gives his input on the film, and on director Todd Solondz. He also gives some background into his choice of colour palette and his thoughts on the RED camera.

Ed Lachman: Selected Scene Commentary (9:51, HD): Lachman gives his input on a few select scenes, including the opening scene and Joy’s night walk. He talks mostly about playing with colours.

Ed Lachman: Five Questions (7:12, HD): Much like the Ask Todd feature (but with video footage), this feature is exactly what the title implies. Lachman briefly answers five questions, covering topics like what drove him into filmmaking, his influences, and what other contemporary cinematographers he enjoys the work of. Fans of Lachman will have a lot of material to love in the special features section of this Blu-ray release.

 Emma Hinz in Life During Wartime - Blu-ray

Overall


While I admired the performances and the great look of Life During Wartime, the film as a whole feels like an unnecessary experiment. Solondz’s usually keen brand of dark comedy isn’t very potent here, and his approach lacks the same sincerity and edge that made Happiness so distinctly memorable. Fans of Solondz should give it a rent first, and those unfamiliar with his work should check out Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness first. Criterion gives the film a stunning transfer, a serviceable audio track, and plenty of valuable extra features that will please devotees.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release 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.


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