1. One can only hope it's temporary, but Todd Solondz appears to be spent as a creative force. "Dark Horse," which had its premiere at Toronto this evening, is such a minor work compared to 1998's "Happiness" -- hell, compared to 2009's "Life During Wartime" -- that it feels like the filmmaker is actively regressing. I say this with regret, because few directors have brought the weight of such committed pessimism to bear on an oppressively optimistic American movie scene. There's a quote from Bertolt Brecht that sums up Solondz's world-view in a toxic nutshell: "He who laughs has not yet heard the bad news." Which is to say that his movies usually make you feel like slitting your wrists, but in a good way.
"Dark Horse" makes you feel like slitting your wrists in a bad way. The small-bore saga of Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber, left in photo), an overweight, immature, hostile 30-something who still lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow, both sporting seriously fraudulent hair), the movie dares you to sympathize with a profoundly unsympathetic man-child. Nothing new there, but Solondz spends so much time ducking in and out of his hero's inner world(s) that the film effectively disappears up its own hindquarters. And there's something reductively self-defeating about a story that reduces everyone in it to two-dimensional caricatures and then rails against the shallowness of the world. The best thing in "Dark Horse"? Broadway legend Donna Murphy (with Gelber above) -- never used well or often enough by the movies -- as a meek secretary who's a sneering Mrs. Robinson in Abe's fantasies.
2. Woody Harrelson is an untapped natural resource and one of the American film industry's most underrated actors. There's been a bit of Oscar buzz here around Harrelson's performance in "Rampart," the second film he has made for director Oren Moverman.(The first, 2009's "The Messenger," scored Harrelson a supporting actor nomination.) And make no mistake, the star's performance as LA cop Dave "Date Rape" Brown is a fearsome and cohesive piece of work. But the movie itself is an increasingly wobbly West Coast "Bad Lieutenant," with Moverman's smart and lethally sharp script -- of the sort an actor like Harrelson knows exactly how to finesse -- falling victim to over-direction. It's a classic case of sophomore slump, highlighted by busy, show-off camerawork that distracts from the human meltdown at the center and almost rescued by a remarkably creative sound design and a gallery of ripe supporting turns: Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, and -- oh, Porgy! -- Audra McDonald as a leering barfly with a thing for cops.
3. It's possible, after all, to cross-pollinate Mumblecore and Hollywood. Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" sounds as genially preposterous as her last film, 2009's "Humpday." In fact, it's funnier and more unexpectedly touching, a three-hander set in a remote cabin north of Seattle. Most intriguing is how the warts-'n'-stubble acting style of a 'Core veteran like Mark Duplass, playing the good-hearted schmoe who loves one sister and drunkenly sleeps with the other, interlocks with the more polished approach of "real" actors Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as the siblings. You'd think you'd need an algorithm to put these three on the screen together, but "Your Sister's Sister" - which was picked up by IFC late yesterday -- works effortlessly while you're watching and only falls apart in the light of day, when (or if) you care to examine it more deeply once you've left the theater. I'd hate to think what Todd Solondz would do with this crew -- I know what Truffaut did with two sisters and a guy, and it wasn't happy (although it is beautiful). Shelton's film exposes the ongoing weak spots in the American low-fi indie scene's approach -- an unwillingness to explore emotional pain too deeply, a tendency to let characters off the hook in the name of forgiveness (earned or not) -- but it showcases the strengths, too, mostly by illustrating the sad, amusing, baffling ways that humans collide. For the time being, I'll take Shelton's cartoons over Solondz's.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Glenn Yoder is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
Swati Sharma is an Arts & Entertainment and Things to Do producer at Boston.com.
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