Saturday, July 7, 2012

Review: "Dark Horse"

Todd Solondz's new films tend to sneak up on me. It always seems like they are in development until suddenly the film is released. Dark Horse began filming in October 2010 and was screened at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals in 2011. Ten months later I was surprised to see that Dark Horse was playing at the Bell Lightbox theatre, home of the Toronto International Film Festival. It is the first time that I have seen a film at the Lightbox, having been there previously for the Grace Kelly exhibit, attend an interview with Tilda Swinton at last year's festival, and take part in a workshop with my students. Dark Horse is exactly the kind of film that I would expect to be showing at the Bell Lightbox. It is co-produced by Mount Pleasant Pictures (a company which Google could not easy find) and Double Hope films (which, thus far, has only produced Dark Horse). I have seen all five of Solondz' previous films, but I have never seen one in theatres. Solondz leans towards the controversial: Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) features a teenage girl who is loathed by her family and classmates and practically agrees to let a boy rape her after school; Happiness (1998) received an NC-17 rating because it deals with pedophilia; Storytelling (2002) was shrouded in controversy because a red box was added to censor a rough sex scene; Palindromes (2004) has different actors playing different racial variations of the films protagonist; and Life During Wartime (2007), somewhat of a sequel to Happiness, features different actors in all the main roles. Todd Solondz sets all his films in New Jersey, and there is a definite commonality to his work. Dark Horse is the least controversial of all his films. But that is not to say it is without discomfort. His characters are often blue-collar workers, life is not east for them. They are often losers. Dark Horse is a prime example. There is, however, a wonderful quality of humour in Todd Solondz's films. He is able to evoke empathy for his characters without sacrificing story. Fans of Todd Solondz' work may be shocked by how tame Dark Horse is on the outside, but at its core it is another intricately woven story about a deplorable character who is struggling through life like the rest of us.

Abe (Jordan Gelber) in his his 30s. He still lives at home with his parents, Jackie (Christopher Walken) and Phyllis (Mia Farrow). He reluctantly works for his father, who develops real estate, but he spends most of his energy (and money) collecting toys. His father has always considered him a dark horse, as he never finished college and stays in the shadow of his younger brother Richard (Justin Bartha), a doctor. At the beginning of the film, while at a wedding reception, Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair). Miranda is just as lost as Abe and still lives at home with her parents. Abe proposes to Miranda on their first date and, out of desperation, she agrees, even though she is still very close to her ex-boyfriend Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi). Abe's life begins to go downhill after Miranda accepts his proposal. He begins (or maybe continues?) having hallucinations involving his father's secretary, Marie (Donna Murphy), which are extremely sexual and inappropriate.

While watching Dark Horse I was struck by the fact that Selma Blair is rarely featured in starring roles. She is usually the crazy friend. Nothing really happened for her after Cruel Intentions (1999). She starred on television in the NBC failure Kath & Kim (2008), and may have found a new career-killer in Charlie Sheen's Anger Management. Todd Solondz (who also cast Blair in Storytelling) has a unique way of utilizing her talents - which is to say that he makes her look like she can act! As I said previously, Dark Horse is a strange concoction for Todd Solondz. It is almost tame. If it was not for Abe's hallucinations, the film could almost be considered normal. Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow were also excellent choices for Abe's parents. Walken and Farrow have been acting for decades in every type of film (and both have appeared in Woody Allen films - though not the same one!). These two actors are so capable of stealing scenes and creating such memorable characters. In supporting (and important roles), both Walken and Farrow shine in Dark Horse. For me, though, it was Donna Murphy who stole the show. She appears so frustratingly meek until she unleashes her inner beast in Abe's hallucinations. It was definitely the best part of the film! Dark Horse, a film about two losers stuck in arrested development, is another standard Todd Solondz film about the lowlifes of society. Unfortunately, I was expecting something a little more controversial and that is nowhere to be found in Solondz's new film. It still has a great story and great performances, but I was left a little underwhelmed.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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