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Todd Solondz may be known by many of you as the Director of controversial films Happiness and Welcome To The Dollhouse. He continues this trend in Storytelling but this time it’s because he wants to give some back to his critics. In one bizarre little film he’s managed to raise the disturbance level thanks to a graphic, race-driven sex scene and a strange story about a filmmaker (a version of himself, I would guess) making a documentary film about a suburban family and a teenager named Scooby in particular. But does this one-and-a-half hour retort translate to an interesting film?

The film is divided into two parts. The first is labeled “Fiction” and only runs for under half an hour. Selma Blair is Vi, who is in a relationship with a man suffering from cerebral palsy (Leo Fitzpatrick playing a totally transparent disabled character). She attends a writing class taken by the Pulitzer-prize winning Mr.Scott, a black man who seems unsatisfied listening to half-cocked stories written by over-zealous twenty-somethings.

When Vi fights with her boyfriend she stumbles upon Mr.Scott in a bar. Right from the outset you can tell something major is going to happen, and the story doesn’t disappoint. The both of them end up at his place, ending with one of the most confronting and graphic sex scenes ever, at least in terms of what was said and the subsequent connotations.

Vi with her pink hair

We then return to the writing class where Vi is reading out the story we’ve just witnessed. She tells everyone it is true but none of them believe her, seemingly too wrapped up in dissecting and criticising the story rather than realising where it is coming from. And that’s basically where it ends. The subject matter doesn’t lend itself to a feature-length movie but the short piece opens up a lot of doors in the plot and basically doesn’t close any of them. It smacks of Solondz merely writing it to shock and disturb, all the while sticking his finger up at the censors who were stunned when Happiness was first released.

The second part of the film, entitled “non-fiction”, looks at budding documentary filmmaker Toby Oxman (the brilliant Paul Giamatti in another fine character acting triumph). Oxman is basically a loser trying to cling to whatever he can find and struggle through with whatever he tries to do. The phone call to an old school friend in the first act will make you uncomfortably squirm. His subject for the film he is trying to make ends up being troubled teenager Scooby, a strange kid who doesn’t want to deal with anything thrown his way. College, parents and ambitions are all just too much for him to handle. And Oxman gets it all on tape, thanks to a cameo from American Movie’s Mike Schank, bless his eternally stoned soul.

The problem with this film is that it can’t really get focused for any length of time. There’s the uncomfortable family dinners, Scooby’s struggle with life in general, Oxman’s lame attempts to go somewhere and the precocious little kid and his relationship with the family’s cleaning lady. When the youngest brother, an annoying little piece of work, decides to hypnotise his father we know things are getting a little out of control. What the hell is a hypnotism performed by a nine year old doing in a film like this? One must conclude it is another attempt by Solondz to make a point about his films, something which just flew straight over my head. And when the hypnotism ends up bringing about the strange (and once again disturbing) finale I’d all but given up on this one.

Probably the only shots that hit their intended target are the stabs at American Beauty and American Movie (which is where Schank comes in). But these are only fleeting moments that are quickly swept up again in Solondz’s ulterior motives.

The brilliant Paul Giamatti as Toby Waxman

When you look at it a decent cast has been assembled but it’s hard to figure out why anyone, save for Giamatti, agreed to take on their respective roles. Included in the film are John Goodman, Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente, Selma Blair, who is still looking for something of class to work with, and even Conan O’Brien who is brought in to perpetuate Scooby’s desire to become a talk show host.

This film is merely an excuse for Director Todd Solondz to have a crack at his critics and prove a point. Even then he doesn’t do anything remotely interesting and ends up with a half-finished shock-fest for an opening act and a messy look at filmmaking and its motivations for the rest. If you enjoyed Happiness then you might get a kick out of this one, but for bizarre filmmaking that actually has some direction check out David Lynch’s work rather than that of audacious Director Todd Solondz.

The opening credits don’t do this transfer any favours from the start. Presented in 1.85:1 and 16:9 enhanced, the large blocks of colour that form the title sequence show up the film artefacts in an instant. This continues for basically the whole film, though it never gets to the point where it’s overwhelmingly distracting. The colours are on the soft side and the sharpness just isn’t quite on par with other recent releases, so on the whole we’ve got a pretty average transfer with this one.

The disc includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that sounds quite good without being remarkable. There’s nothing really to test the subwoofer out, nor is there much surround use save for a couple of ambient effects here and there and some (appropriately bizarre) music that fades in and out at various times. Dialogue is clear for the entire film though there are English subtitles included for those that way inclined. Not much to say about this one, though it’s definitely not the worst I’ve heard at all.

Scooby the stoner

Not surprisingly there’s not much to report here save for the theatrical trailer. Interestingly it comes with a little prologue that goes something like this:

"Storytelling is a movie comprised of two different stories. The Director did not want to give anything away from the first story, so the following trailer is incomplete. The producers and distributor apologise for the Director’s whims, but he has final cut."

Has anyone ever heard anything like that? Or is Solondz just having us all on? There’s no footage of the first half hour so one would assume it’s all for real.

Just an excuse for the Director to take a thinly-veiled stab at his critics, Storytelling shocks for the first part then meanders along for the next before settling for an amazingly contrived ending designed purely to prove a point about his films. An average video and audio transfer and a bizarre trailer don’t help things that much, so I’d suggest only fans of Happiness and the like take a look at this one. Also note that this is a rental only title at this stage.