All posts by Phil Gyford

Another ‘Damsels in Distress’ roundup

Time to catch up on yet more coverage of Damsels in Distress. I’ve skipped most of the reviews this time around as they’re becoming increasingly brief and repetitive. Most recent reviewers either find the film has good moments but they find it all a bit too fake or wordy, or else they love it, with a caveat or two (often the plot or, as they see it, lack of one).

Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton
Damsels in Distress: Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton

Let’s take a deep breath and kick off with a review from Felicia Feaster at Charleston City Paper that gives the movie two thumbs down, and a criticism I haven’t seen before:

Slight to the point of banality, Damsels in Distress is a fey stab at screwball that comes off as mind-numbingly precious and dull as dirt. Is this really the movie a 60-year-old preppy who should be playing golf decides to entertain himself with after a 13-year hiatus? Clearly still convinced that his college days were the best years of his life, Stillman traffics in the same stunted, adolescent imagination as the Gidget movies and offers the unpleasant, deeply unflattering sight of a grown man moony over the springtime loveliness of girls less than half his age. It’s like a creepy uncle rubbernecking on the activities of kids.

Well, everyone sees something different I guess. Eric Hynes in the Riverfront Times is more upbeat, and open to the ambiguities in the film:

Four features in, Whit Stillman’s cinematic sensibility is both plain as day and hard to pin down. In a Stillman film, a lost gentility is regularly romanticized but rarely ever properly defined, let alone reacquired. Rules are fetishized for the implication, if not the realization, of order. And in this, his most plainly satirical film that is also arguably his least cynical, a bunch of aspiring conformists reliably do the most abnormal of things – sniff bars of soap, conjugate the plural of doofus, choreograph the sambola. Dancing breaks out in all of Stillman’s films and usually just because. All the cardigans and brass-buttoned blazers in the world can’t cloak that kind of eccentricity.

In the Morning Sentinel, J.P. Devine (“a former stage and screen actor”) has an idea for what could be next:

Stillman’s dialogue is smart and sassy, but poorly delivered by a generation of young actors who think no one else is listening. The film takes too much time to get going, and beneath the snappy funny lines, there is an undertow of darkness that flows around Violet, and even in the finale when she channels Ginger Rogers, we wonder what post-college life holds for her.

That’s a movie I’d like to see.

At Indy Week David Fellerath draws an interesting distinction between being concerned with race and, maybe, class, in a broad sense:

…like [Woody] Allen, [Stillman’s] not above dropping sight gags and one-liners for the sake of a guffaw. But with this film, we see an important difference: Allen’s movie world is notorious for its lack of non-white people. Black characters are conspicuous throughout Damsels in Distress. Stillman’s use of black actors, laudable in itself, also pre-empts a common misreading of his work as a fetishizing of rich Caucasians. Instead, his real concern is with sensibility and taste, of refinement in manner and intellect; the full name of his heroine, Violet Wister, suggests delicacy and nostalgic yearning. We may live in a fallen world, but the return of Whit Stillman to movie theaters gives us cause for hope.

Stephen Cooke at the Chronicle Herald briefly interviews Stillman, who outlines one of the themes that interests him, but which, I fear, is lost on most reviewers:

“Some people have been so incredibly square about the film, like they can’t enjoy the comedy because the subject matter sounds dumb when they read it on the page. To say that someone doesn’t know all the colours when they get to college sounds dumb is irrelevant, because it’s what happens to the subject matter that’s important.

“What’s cool is how the colour theme just grows, and you get into all of these things, like people who are really just unbelievably stupid, but do well because they’re scholarly and dedicated academically.

“Frankly, I ran into that quite a bit, people who are deadly serious about academics, but didn’t have a clue about the world.”

At We Are Movie Geeks, Barbie Snitzer has a lengthy article about Damsels. A self-confessed “snob (not a cynic)”, who manages to come across as relentlessly cynical. She seems confused by the movie, particularly by the lack of cell phones and computers. She paints Stillman as a deluded old man who thinks he has something to say because he was once a successful director. I just don’t know.

Finally, we have a post from Jason Busch at Spend Matters who sees some lessons for the workplace in Stillman’s movies, and particularly the verbose manner in which his characters speak:

[Stillman] can take the seemingly trivial and weave an extremely compelling exchange around it. And he does it, again and again and again, such that the broader plot matters almost less than the individual stories that push it along.

When modern conversations are shrinking into increasingly brief tweets, we should take our time to explain things properly:

I believe good dialogue matters when it comes to everything around us. But increasingly, it’s a rarity. Perhaps we can all do our small part to change that, not being afraid to foster an environment and workspaces where depth and exploration is valued over the dumbing down of ideas, not for the sake of simplicity alone, but because of an intellectually laziness that feels more and more common in an age of information and analysis where we consume more than ever but rarely take the time to digest at the level we should – or argue back with the right zinger just for the sake of putting our colleagues into an intellectual pickle from which they must untangle to prove their worth (and the worth of their ideas).

And that’s all for now. Have a good week!

Oliver Stone’s ‘Red Azalea’

Before we get to more Damsels in Distress I keep forgetting to post this snippet from the New York Post:

Whit Stillman wanted to helm an adaptation of Anchee Min’s Maoist memoir, Red Azalea, as his next project after his 1998 film, The Last Days of Disco. But, he told us, he was pushed out of the project when Oliver Stone wanted in. Stillman says he was ready to extend an option to the book for $140,000, but the deal mysteriously collapsed when Stone showed interest. Stillman’s option lapsed, and Stone wound up dropping the film when he realized it couldn’t be shot in China.

I don’t think we’d previously heard that Oliver Stone was the reason Stillman dropped Red Azalea.

Even more ‘Damsels’ interviews

Has Whit Stillman got anything new to say about Damsels in Distress? Have interviewers got anything new to ask him? There’s only one, quite laborious, way to find out…

We’ll start off with this six minute video of a pin-striped Stillman being interviewed on Bloomberg Television by Tom Keene (who admits he knows nothing about films, but has been well briefed):

Stillman reveals that the movie, including post-production, cost around $1.5 million, which I think is new to us, and that it’s gradually opening up on to more screens and is likely to keep screening over the summer.

At the Montreal Gazette, Jeff Heinrich interviews Stillman, although Heinrich doesn’t seem to think much of the intellect of the potential audience:

There are a lot of big words in his movies that some people might not understand, I tell Stillman. Like what, he asks? I check the notes I made while watching the film: “foreboding,” “incumbent upon,” “immutable,” “incalculable.” As the list goes on, Stillman looks a bit out. “Those aren’t big words to me,” he finally says.

Well, quite. The Gazette also has a page of quotes from Stillman’s movies if you want some light relief.

PJ Media have an audio interview with Stillman by Ed Driscoll. I haven’t listened to the whole ten minutes, but he does say that Criterion are talking to Warners about making Barcelona available for release on DVD or Blu-Ray.

Paul Byrne has a good, and fairly long, interview with Stillman in Ireland for Movies.ie, which is worth a read. They talk about Stillman’s failed attempts to make movies out of a couple of books and Stillman says:

But I’m staying away from books now. Original stories all the way. I’m also thinking about not accept script commissions anymore. Try to write the script myself, don’t sell it.

At the Telegraph in the UK, David Gritten interviews Stillman although by this point I don’t think there’s anything here that we haven’t read before. The same goes for Charles Ealy’s interview at Austin360 and Miles Fielder’s at The List.

At the Miami Herald Rene Rodriguez talks to Stillman and makes a point of saying what a nice chap he is:

Despite the tony airs and sophisticated palette of his pictures, Stillman remains a thoroughly accessible, friendly and chatty fellow, completely devoid of any airs or pretension. “I find arrogance so offensive,” he says. “There’s a filmmaker who made a film last year that I loved. I saw him at one of these luncheons where they’re trying to get people votes for the Oscars. I went up to him and said hi, and he was so rude and full of himself. I was going to vote for his movie after the lunch, and then I thought ‘You know? He’s such a stuck-up guy, and he’s going to get nominated anyway. I just won’t bother.’ And I didn’t.

Caitlin Moore has a fairly good interview at Austinist and Stillman hints at the actors for future projects:

Moore: You’ve used a lot of the same actors in some of your movies. Do you feel like there are any from Damsels that you’ll use again?

Stillman: I love them. Absolutely. A whole bunch from this film. There’s many actors in this film I’d like to work with again. I’m already trying to think of shaping this script that I have where they could work – because, and that’s one of the exciting things – when you’re still working on a script, you can still shape it for performers. And I really like to do that. So Greta and Adam would be the leads and then there are other people that I would like to bring back.

Moore: So that’s a technique that you’ve used a lot?

Stillman: It helped me with Barcelona because I already had the idea for Barcelona before I started working on the script about the two cousins in Barcelona, and then I met Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman shooting Metropolitan, and saw how well they got on together and that became the basis of Barcelona.

Stillman also reveals that a couple of imposters on Twitter were removed:

Moore: Do you use Twitter or anything like that?

Stillman: I don’t use Twitter. I’ve had to take down two imposters who weren’t good imposters. If they’d been funny it would have been ok, but they weren’t funny at all. And so I still won’t do Twitter so that I’m not imposted.

Finally, the Economist’s Prospero blog interviews Stillman and, among other things, they discuss the tone of his new film:

Economist: The little love story in Damsels between Violet (Greta Gerwig) and Charlie (Adam Brody) could almost be from one of your earlier films, except for the daffy way Violet talks… Then we meet the bunch of troglodytic frat boys she wants to save from being thrown off the campus…

Stillman: The first two-thirds of this film is in the mode of my other films; the last third is a cartoon. All the people who played those parts—the dumb frat boys—knew exactly how to play them when they came in and read. Ryan Metcalf, who plays Frank, said, “I’m thinking of something that’s rather broad. Do you want to see it?” I said, “Yeah, show me ‘rather broad.’” And he knocked it out of the park. Then Billy Magnessun, who ended up playing Thor, came in, and he was bouncing off the walls.

That’s all the interviews for the moment.

‘Damsels’: Seven out of seven

As Damsels in Distress spreads across the USA (in 57 theaters last weekend), and opens in other countries, more and more places are reviewing the movie. Many of these reviews are brief, so we’ll concentrate on the others which, this week, all seem to be pretty positive…

Greta Gerwig and Ryan Metcalf
Damsels in Distress: Greta Gerwig and Ryan Metcalf

At Den of Geek, Michael Leader is pleased, awarding 4 out of 5 stars:

Throughout, Stillman’s satire is softer [than in his previous films], and the overall tone is much gentler than one would expect. It also, at times, strays almost too closely to – whisper it – kookiness. Whereas before his characters could be unwittingly twattish, this time around his damsels and dudes are far too gloriously dumb, or deliriously gormless. It must be said, though, that this lighter tone is rather fetching.

Jeff Heinrich at the Montreal Gazette seems to have problems following non-North American accents but is otherwise upbeat:

It’s a situation rom-com, an action movie for Scrabble players, a musical comedy for fans of Fred Astaire, as the kids spell out their futures, dance and sing and grow up.

At the Kansas City Star, Rene Rodriguez continues the near-universal praise for Greta Gerwig’s performance and is generally pleased about everything else too:

Damsels in Distress is light and frothy by design – it’s an inconsequential bauble – but I laughed out loud in nearly every scene, and there are lines in the movie that still make me chuckle. This is the work of a singular voice in American cinema, except this time, everyone can be in on the jokes.

Canada’s National Post assembles a panel of three to review the film. Like most conversations, it doesn’t actually reach a conclusion, but they all seemed to enjoy it.

At Examiner.com, Brian Zitzelman is also upbeat about this “terrifically entertaining and absurd story”:

Stillman manages to ground them in this un-reality, especially Violet. He gives the story a light touch, kind of a fluffy cupcake of a movie, with Gerwig’s head-nodding lead a genuine center. Her dialogue and mannerisms might be unnatural, but Violet’s motivations and heart are true.

Over in the UK, Philip French in the Observer has what I guess is a review of the film, but in around 1000 words he manages to avoid giving much of a clue as to whether he likes the film, or thinks it any good.

Though never fully focused or explicit, Damsels in Distress seems to be a metaphor for a society that has constantly been in need of authority and responsible leadership, and where since frontier days women have seen it as their duty to set standards and improve rebellious males.

Also in the UK, the Independent’s Jonathan Romney exhibits more of an opinion, and he appears very much pleased by “a film that’s a crazy, exuberant objet, a glimmering bauble fashioned for the sheer delight of it”:

The film is gorgeously shot by Doug Emmett, who puts a summery gleam on the marble frontages, and scored by Mark Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger with echoes of breezily vacant 1950s pop. This is a feelgood film, if you must – but not in any way you’ll recognise. You’ll gape at the sheer improbability of Damsels In Distress, but go with it, and you may find it lifts your soul even as it makes your jaw drop.

And that’s a good place to end this batch of reviews.

Whit Stillman Interviewtastical

Not so long ago, a single Whit Stillman interview would have made for an exciting blog post. But now, with Damsels in Distress in cinemas, we’re cramming plenty of the things together as if they’re nothing special.

Whit Stillman
Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman on set

We start off with Daniel Anderson at Click who, first, has a look back at Stillman’s earlier films, moving on to some background about the current release:

During the making of Damsels, Stillman put himself under more pressure by taking on extra writing – something he regrets. “I made a huge mistake in this film where, to make money, I also had an HBO writing assignment. I did a draft before we shot the film and right after. That was a mistake – particularly the draft beforehand. Afterwards maybe it’s a good to take off from the film for a few weeks but both were very bad ideas and I think we recovered from it but it took me a while.”

Anderson has also posted the full transcript of his (February) interview with Stillman at Click, which is a nice touch and gives us plenty more interesting material to read:

WS: Everything [about making a film] can be bad! I think there is… I used to find the editing phase the best. But even that can be bad if things aren’t quite working. I find starting out… the idea of the script is normally a happy thing then getting started is very difficult. Then there’s a point when things are going well with the script and everything’s exciting. I think probably everything has its downsides. So yes the casting thing is great because you’ve finished the script and people want to make it – that’s kind of cool. But then there’s also the terror that you won’t find anyone to play some parts. We had a very hard time finding the males for Damsels. The French actor Hugo Becker we didn’t get his visa until the last three days of the shoot. And everyone thought I was crazy hanging on for this actor, they wanted me to recast.

DA: So you had to do all of his stuff in the last three days?

WS: The last three days of the shoot.

Next, Ellin Stein interviews Stillman at the Arts Desk (don’t miss the easy-to-miss “next page” link at the bottom of the article):

Even Stillman’s ability to keep costs down didn’t help. “I remember talking to a producer about how inexpensively I could make a movie and logically that should be good,” he recalls. “If you can make a movie for 1.5 million that will return 3 million, that’s fantastic. But that’s not the psychology people have. They say, ‘The film has to cost five million so I can charge my $250,000 producer fee.’ My best friend, who was also an investor in Metropolitan, said, ‘People talk in the film business the way the gang about to knock over a bank talk, except in the film business they divide up the loot before they do the job.’”

I didn’t even know at the time that Whit Stillman was in London (where I live) recently, but Michael Leader interviewed him here for Den of Geek. Stillman tells us about film-making on a tight budget:

Leader: As the director and producer, how did you keep costs down?

Stillman: You don’t do things the industry way. I was a little too maniacal about it, because I am such a cheapskate emotionally that I would get out of control where any expenditure upset me. But I felt we were a very comfortable production, because we could have a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee run twice a day. There’s one in the afternoon, too. So I felt that was quite luxurious. Having good coffee on set was quite a treat.

He also discusses shooting the film on digital RED cameras, which I don’t think I’ve seen him talk about before:

Leader: The film does have a very striking look. Those backlit shots, with the sunlight cutting through the frame, are beautiful. And I don’t think many cinematographers would do that.

Stillman: It’s amazing. Some people really criticise that. I think it’s fantastic. It’s transformative. I think that digital photography, by people who know how to use it, has gotten far superior to film. Far superior. I love it. I mean, I saw a famous RED film last night on TV. It was one of the first big-budget films made on a RED. I don’t know what they did wrong, but it looks so god-awful. And I think the RED wasn’t very good when it started. And, also, I think on post-production, if people don’t colour time it properly… You have to have proper people working at every stage.

Interesting that for such a film-maker who many think of as somehow old-fashioned, he’s so keen on the latest shooting technology, when plenty of directors are stubbornly holding on to celluloid for as long as possible.

And that’s all the interview action for the time being.