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Sundance 2016: "Wiener-Dog"

Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was what no one calls the Todd Solondz Cinematic Universe, inhabited by outsiders, pedophiles, inquisitive children and suburban nightmares. Like with Marvel, characters also reappear throughout Solondz's dark films, sometimes played by different actors, all while serving his brand—a caustic, uncomfortable, hilarious vision. “Wiener-Dog,” his unofficial sequel to 1995 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” confirms with a dog's journey that Solondz's recognizable style remains just as enigmatic—especially when the writer/director gets personal. 

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Solondz returns after 2011's “Dark Horse” with a vengeance, armed with a pitch that is banal and brilliant: an ensemble comedy (of sorts) in which we are carried along to unconnected lives by a Dachshund. Always interested in poking at our sensitivities to innocence, the dog becomes a shameless narrative device, its importance having progressively little to do with the characters. 

In the first section, a young boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) gets the dog, names it “Wiener-Dog,” and learns conflicting ideas about sex, death and authority through the thousands of questions he asks his parents (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy). The following segment then finds the dog, rescued from the vet and now named “Doody,” on a road trip with “Welcome to the Dollhouse” characters Dawn (Greta Gerwig) and Brandon (Kieran Culkin). (Bullies called Dawn “wiener-dog” in “Dollhouse.”) On the way to see his brother, they pick up depressing mariachis who can’t get a job in America. 

Later, an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn) now owns the dog and names him “Cancer." She then faces ghosts of what her life could have been. Needless to say, Solondz’s world remains distinct, but like any great filmmaker, earns its beauty from abstract touches. Very little reveals itself; with a refreshing self-distancing from perfection, Solondz has made another project with a precise vision, one that would rather be questioned than sponsor immediate fulfillment. 

The writer/director has rarely gotten as personal as a third segment involving Danny DeVito, playing a film professor (Solondz teaches at NYU). In an introduction that boasts a different breed of dark comedy, DeVito interviews a young wannabe director who claims that he has so much to say—he wants to make a short film about a superhero. But when asked what movies he seen recently, he can’t name one. Meanwhile, DeVito’s Dave Schmerz (sound familiar?) is laughed out of academia for his storytelling motto of “What if? Then what?” With the scene’s acerbic nature heightened by DeVito walking by real-life theater marquees (from this summer’s past movies) and delivering a sensational monologue about making his scripts terrible to sell them, Solondz wraps this jarring passage with a vicious bow. As the marvelous “Wiener-Dog” becomes Solondz’s “Au Hasard Balthasar," it is also his violent allergic reaction to the current state of movies. 

Solondz has always concocted great visual ideas for his movies, but they have rarely come to filmic life as they do in “Wiener-Dog.” Enter Ed Lachman, the cinematographer who gave beauty most recently to Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” and now applies that touch of dimension and place to “Wiener-Dog.” Throughout, the images have a digital crispness to them, and the colors are fantastic. Characters look like they could be plucked out of their saturated settings. Nonetheless, Solondz then applies this artistry to his own delicate ugliness in a few unforgettable, extended passages, albeit concerning the dog’s bodily functions. It's perfect for Solondz that one of his most cinematic films is also one of his most antagonistic. 

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