Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: Damsels in Distress (2011)

Christians in college, this time. Kay.

Greta Gerwig and her team of blank-faced sprites attempt to improve the morale at their college by implementing a strict regimen of tap-dancing, donuts, and hygiene awareness. Every once in awhile there's a hookup followed by a breakup followed by some dry comments and some more breakups. Surely you get the drill by now.

13 years later and Stillman has lost a measure of his edge. The settings he concocts are usually specific enough to be almost entirely unrelatable, but this one is a real doozy. This can't be anyone's college experience. It seems to be closer to a late-Shakespearian farce, rather than a comedy of manners, but for that to work there has to be actual farce. The plot is instead driven almost entirely by the dialogue, per usual, and fixates on less-than-funny character quirks ("How can you not know all the colors?"), bizarre repetitions ("He's an operator,"x16), and anal sex played for laughs (???). Worst of all, soft close-ups of two characters kissing grossly, get that shit out of your goddamned movie, every last one of you.

It's certainly watchable but fairly uneventful and very disposable, with no closure of story threads and what is most assuredly a waste of talented actors sitting at the ready. It should have been an Amazon pilot for a future TV show, which is probably how that Cosmopolitans project actually came about. Oh but don't bother looking for that or anything, Amazon hates their own work more than they hate the idea that you might want to watch it. Oh, this. Right. Uh... eh.

Review: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

It's bad enough trying to get a book published under your name while living in an apartment with people you dislike, but you also gotta worry about cocaine addiction, tax indictment, and violent punk rockers? Christ, it's so tough being into disco, I had no idea.

It's the 80s! Music is terrible, AIDS is right around the corner and the economy is about to tank. I'm confused, though...  are we uptight or are we loose- aw fuck it, this is a paaaaarty. Why worry? The only looming specter that haunts our characters is the possibility that they won't make it into the club that night. This outright deflection of what is actually the cause of their misery means that The Last Days of Disco possesses much more cynicism than the previous films, that the solution is to overcome themselves and each other. The theme compacts into another microcosm: Chloe Sevigny trades her true feelings for popularity and makes some poor decisions resulting in real high-stakes punishment, divvied by Robert Sean Leonard and his reprehensible outbursts of sudden celibate guilt. Goddamn.

There is a bit of a misstep, come the second half. The way this film decouples its boxcars really reiterates Stillman's disinterest in storytelling structure. After a small time jump, it seems like we're following a completely new set of characters, with new relationships and romantic goals. Those two are together? That guy always loved that woman? ... Huh. It makes it difficult not to think the worst, that there was no way to continue the film on its current course so Stillman had to invent a new one to force it into the satisfying closure he had in mind. Otherwise, you simply have to take his word for it.

At least there still exists the usual dry one-liners and strange conversations about nothing, including a classic argument about The Lady and the Tramp. It's fun at a consistent clip and charming enough to overshadow the large holes. This time.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Review: Barcelona (1994)

Leaving our out-of-touch group of UHB socialites, Stillman's focus shifts inches to out-of-touch American citizens living in Spain. Communication breakdowns are expanded to include political and cultural differences, one that really exposes Metropolitan's climax as a symptom of the American puritan, while critical plot movement happens slowly or, sometimes, entirely offscreen. Taylor Nichols as a stressed-out neurotic doormat and Chris Eigeman as an adorable, genuine patriot embodying a microcosm of unwanted occupation hoist the story on their shoulders, and keep us invested with their petty bickering. The themes nest under a column of air.

And yet...

It's tough to pinpoint what has been lost here, however small it may be. The writing is just as sharp but the thrust is softer. Barcelona is a lot closer to a personal journal; narration comes in jarringly, at unexpected moments, regardless of our need for them, and indicates early on that this moment in time is transitory and a little meaningless. Perhaps the bigger shame is the complete jettison of the original climax, one that would have cleverly tied together the dark subplot running in the background. Fixing the low stakes of Metropolitan was inches away, and for whatever reason, is gone now. In more keeping with the diary entry aspect, the film exits quietly, where once again, the final page turns.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review: Metropolitan (1990)

The bones of Pride and Prejudice find a new body in New York, 1990, where yet again, two acquaintances fall in love with each other, at different times.

Stillman chucks us into the middle of group of friends and gives us enough credit to leave the introductions between the characters offscreen. While we're catching up with the diagram of how these card-carrying members of the UHB know each other, we observe complex social interactions where the concept of 'fun' lies distant from its practice and heated debates appear initially to end in a fractures, but do not. A strange sort of stuffiness remains in dances, games of bridge, and even in a game of strip poker, during 'orgy week.' Emotional outbursts are directed internally, buried beneath prep-school trivia and golden one-liners that are impossible to repeat to your friends.

Eventually, it's time for the plot to move and we languish in an Eigeman-less limbo, a third act that could have probably progressed in fewer steps with stronger stakes. The group dynamic changes so fast that there is only time to lament its loss, and the characters we are left with realize that they were good buddies all along, perhaps at the same time we do. The film's ending leaves various threads dangling, indicating the final page of a journal rather than the closed loop of a story. Its strongest connected thread is that being poor is no limit to snobbery and wealth is no limit to pain, and it's enough.

Thank you, Austen and Allen. You're welcome, Baumbach and Smith.