Blu-Ray Review: Criterion Tackles Todd Solondz’s ‘Life During Wartime’

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CHICAGO – The Criterion deal with IFC Films has led to some very interesting additions to their collection including some controversial choices. The universally-acclaimed and upcoming “Carlos” may be understandable but do “Everlasting Moments” and “Revanche” deserve the standing that comes with the Criterion label? I’m torn and no more so than with the release of “Life During Wartime,” a decent and interesting flick that nonetheless would be FAR down the list of movies I would choose for induction into the most important club in DVD history. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0

Let’s play pros & cons. On one hand, it’s a simple fact that arthouses are in dire straits with fewer and fewer people driving past the multiplex to see indie fare even in major cities. And they often get just as buried at home, especially as independent video stores disappear. In other words, anything that brings a great company like IFC Films to a wider audience is a good thing. I honestly believe that.

And yet I also worry that the IFC/Criterion decision has forced some superior works to the B-list because the company has to put together an IFC release a month. Some of them stand among my favorites of the last couple years and I’m not here to argue against “Che,” “A Christmas Tale,” or a few others. “Life During Wartime”? It’s not that great. Of course,, the Criterion release is great, but does it take away a “spot” from what might be a more-deserving film? One would hope not. As long as the IFC titles are seen as “extras” and not “replacements,” I’m totally cool with it but the fact is that “Life During Wartime” is far from the best film released by the company even this month much less this season or this year.

Life During Wartime was released on Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD on July 26th, 2011
Life During Wartime was released on Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD on July 26th, 2011
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Having said that, this is a solid release for a decent film. And “decent” is better than Todd Solondz has been in a few years given the relative failure of “Storytelling” and “Palindromes,” two films in which the talented writer/director of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness” seemed to lose his way by emphasizing form over character. “Life During Wartime” is certainly another example of Solondz playing with the form but with much more interesting results, largely due to some of the strongest performances he’s ever directed. He seems interested in character for the first time since “Happiness.”

Life During Wartime was released on Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD on July 26th, 2011
Life During Wartime was released on Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD on July 26th, 2011
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Perhaps that’s partially because this is a quasi-sequel to that breakthrough film. Instead of making a traditional update, Solondz recast the entire production with new actors playing all of the roles. He also moves his setting from New Jersey to Florida, creating a piece with a similar emotional undercurrent but a very different feeling. If everyone in “Happiness” was physically close to each other but a great distance psychologically, the people in “Life During Wartime” are separated by both space and emotion. It’s arguably Solondz’s least cynical film in that it produces honest emotion through the plight of its characters and feels the least like a filmmaker who mocks his own creations.

The Blu-ray release doesn’t feature a commentary to shed light on the filmmaker’s intentions scene-by-scene but it does include some fascinating special features including a new behind-the-scenes documentary. It does feel like the IFC/Criterion deal has been in place long enough (almost two years now) that bonus material is being created on-set with Criterion in mind and perhaps that’s the best thing about this partnership, “Life During Wartime” may not be a great film but if special features this interesting can serve as a model for studios producing Blu-rays for other indie films than it could be the most valuable relationship in the Criterion universe.

“In Life During Wartime, independent filmmaker Todd Solondz explores contemporary American existence and the nature of forgiveness with his customary dry humor and queasy precision. The film functions as a distorted mirror image of Solondz’s acclaimed 1998 dark comedy Happiness, its emotionally stunted characters now groping for the possibility of change in a post-9/11 world. Happiness’s grim New Jersey setting is transposed to sunny Florida, but the biggest twist is that new actors fill the roles originated in the earlier film - including Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, and Ally Sheedy as alarmingly dissimilar sisters, and Ciarán Hinds hauntingly embodying a reformed pedophile. Shot in expressionistic tones by cinematographer extraordinaire Ed Lachman, Solondz’s film finds the humor in the tragic and the tragic in the everyday.”

Special Features:
o Ask Todd, an audio Q&A with director Todd Solondz in which he responds to viewers’ questions
o Making Life During Wartime, a new documentary featuring interviews with actors Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, and Michael Kenneth Williams, as well as on-set footage
o New interviews with director of photography Ed Lachman
o Original theatrical trailer
o Booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Sterritt

“Life During Wartime” stars Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, Ciaran Hinds, Chris Marquette, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Lerner, and Paul Reubens. It was written and directed by Todd Solondz. It was released by The Criterion Collection on July 26th, 2011. content director Brian Tallerico

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