Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pain at home; culture shock abroad

Tim (Dylan Riley Snyder) and mom (Allison Janney).
Director Todd Solondz shook up the indie world with 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse. In one way or another, Solondz has been making similar movies ever since. It's possible to regard Solondz as a true American miserablist, and his movies -- though tempered with dark humor -- inflict all manner of pain on their middle-class characters. Solondz's latest -- Life During Wartime -- catches up with characters from 1998's Happiness, which (among other things) took aim at the darkest underside of suburban living. In the new movie, the characters from Happiness are transported into the present, although they're not played by actors from the first installment. Ciaran Hinds, for example, replaces Dylan Baker, as a pedophile father. Hinds' Bill is being released from prison during the movie's grim opening sequence. Life During Wartime, a middling helping of Solondz, alternates uneasy humor and unrelieved helpings of anguish. This time, though, the tug of yearning (notably for absent fathers) doesn't feel especially strong. I'm not sure Life During Wartime takes us any place that Solondz hasn't been before; it seems more variation on a theme than fresh discovery. I look for a quick exit from art-house venues across the nation.
Alexander Siddig and Patricia Clarkson tour Cairo.
No one is likely to accuse Cairo Time of being misnamed. Throughout this slow-moving look at the experiences of a married woman (Patricia Clarkson) waiting for her U.N.-employed husband in Cairo, writer/director Ruba Nadda allows the city to seep into our senses in ways that sometimes make us feel as if time has stopped. Nadda effectively depicts the ways in which Clarkson's Juliette makes the transition from culture shock to immersion in the city's rhythms. Beautifully photographed by cinematographer Luc Montpellier, Cairo becomes a full-fledged character in the movie. Sad to say, the city proves more interesting than any of the movie's human occupants. Clarkson does the most she can with a character who spends s lot of time alone. Given little to play off, she's left to plumb the depths of her reactions to a series of low-key events, the most notable involving a tentative and largely inconclusive relationship with the owner of an Egyptian coffee shop (Alexander Siddig). Nadda's screenplay tends toward repetition, but the movie sometimes catches us in its sway, much the way an unexpected breeze can dispel the torments of stifling heat -- if only briefly. As one who's not likely to travel to Cairo any time soon, I welcomed this cinematic journey, even as I yearned for some dramatic sparks to fly.

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