All posts by Phil Gyford

The Return of ‘Damsels’ Reviews

Here’s the next batch of Damsels in Distress reviews, although it seems like this bunch’s average score would be lower than in previous postings.

Thomas Hibbs’s (dean of the Honors College at Baylor University) review at National Review Online is a little more thoughtful than most, although much of it consists of (amusing) quotes from the film.

The serious point behind the humor is not of course that we ought to take Violet’s prescriptions as normative. Indeed, as is the case in other Stillman films, the reformers and theorists end up in trouble. Their schemes inevitably run afoul of the complexities of the real world. In the press notes for the film, Stillman comments, “It’s hard not to admire the idealists who, not content with the existent world, seek to invent new ones. But the confidence and mastery these future-architects embody often disguise a fragile persona that’s frail, inadaptive, and, finally, easily shattered.” That’s precisely what happens to Violet in Damsels.

At the San Diego City College’s City Times, Tom Andrew is, let’s say, underwhelmed:

The film tries to be comically absurd as most Bill Murray, Farrelly Brothers and some Cohen Brothers films are, but it doesn’t even come close to these films. … Damsels, should not be seen in the theater. In fact, it shouldn’t be seen at all, unless you are prepared to lose 99 minutes of your life and know you’ll never get those minutes back.

I’m not sure that sentence even makes sense. Hans Morgenstern at Independent Ethos is a little more positive and thoughtful but also, ultimately, less than enthusiastic:

Throughout the film, Lily asks the questions but just floats along with it, accepting Violet’s convoluted misinformation for the sake of the mental stability of those surrounding them. It sets Lily up to make a mistake that later proves degrading to herself after Xavier takes advantage of Lily’s own dumbing-down in the bedroom. This is no way for anyone to find education and grow up, and in the end no one does. There lies the inherent problem of the movie: If conflicts are so easily resolved by humoring ignorance, why should we care about these people? It’s funny for a bit, but becomes grating, tiresome and plain pathetic fast.

At Cine Vue, Patrick Gamble gives the movie 4 out of 5 and, while he has reservations, is broadly upbeat:

Gerwig – already perceived as the unofficial queen of indie filmmaking – is, as to be expected, superb. Fuelled by the type of script any actor would love to have presented to them, she positively revels in the pretentious and arrogant characteristics of Violet, expelling an assured egotistical demeanour that recalls Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) – only far more complex and endearing.

In Baltimore’s City Paper, Bret McCabe has little bad to say:

The plot is fairly inconsequential, as Damsels’ version of undergraduate life is an imaginary utopia. Stillman uses it more as the backdrop for daydreaming young people starting to transition into the reality of adulthood, and he zeroes in on the comic conflicts of imagination colliding with actuality. College becomes that place where who people wish they were gets whittled into an understanding of who they are, and Stillman has the mature restraint not to do it with a serrated cynical blade. He instead mines the comedy of precocious seriousness, and the results are moments of the wonderfully pointless.

Next, Aaron Mesh, a long-term Stillman fan, is entirely positive at Williamette Week:

The movie is so madcap and mannered, and Gerwig’s performance so perfectly balanced on the edge of mania, that people might read it as a satire. But anybody who’s spent time in the cloistered world of a small, hidebound liberal arts school will recognize it as only a slight exaggeration, even down to the creepy French guy who says he prefers anal sex for religious reasons. Stillman is having a laugh at this bizarro world—where the goody two-shoes are heroes, counterculture activists are conceited scoundrels, and frat boys are the hapless, filthy ditwits stuck in between—but he’s also advocating for an ideal of feminine civilization.

Tom Grater at Impact, the University of Nottingham’s (UK) magazine is utterly perplexed. Indeed, it sounds like he’s been watching a different film to most critics, even those who were ambivalent:

The production is thoroughly and perplexingly amateurish; irrelevant shots of the sky are interspersed amongst numerous oddities: loses of focus, sound problems, an over-reliance on a soft focus filter that only furthers the tweeness of it all.

In fact, I’m struggling to unearth any redeeming features. It never moves at a consistent pace, dropping characters from the limelight and then picking them back up in the blink of an eye. It never really has a point either, tangentially exploring one idea and then jettisoning it for something else. It’s frustrating, pretentious and ultimately difficult to watch. Real horror show.

Not really a Stillman fan, I’m guessing. At The Quad, Vijayta Narang had mixed views:

While it does have its moments of cinematic harmony, the film is driven by snappy dialogue as opposed to visuals. The dialogue is a little too dry at times, but effectively delivered. Stillman can be commended on having created a set of characters that are both caricatures and are all flawed in very believable ways.

Let’s hope the next batch of reviews are more consistently positive.

Two Stillman interviews

To get up-to-date we have two interviews with Whit Stillman about Damsels in Distress.

Whit Stillman
Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman on set

First, Craig Skinner doing a long two part interview at at Hey U Guys. It’s better and deeper than the average, so worth a read.

Skinner: Do you have any solid plans at the moment?

Stillman: In my career, solid is not a good word [laughs]. I do have the intention to make something else, that I’ve been keeping under wraps. In fact one publication I said that to, I think it was a copy editor that changed it to, “he’s next making a project Under Wraps”. [Laughs] Yet another film he’s not making!

Skinner: I read a quote from you recently about a film idea that has really stuck in my head and I’d love to see you make. It was about the idea of a Gold Diggers film.

Stillman: That is a total fantasy but it intrigues me, the idea. I think it would be so funny to come out with the Gold Diggers of 2015 and just try and do the same sort of thing but now. I mean, how would we do it now? It would have to re-imagined but…

…That’s a happy memory from my youth, I don’t remember the exact form of them. I remember that one of my favourite things of musical films was the Lullaby of Broadway episode. It’s magnificent, that sequence. It’s just so beautiful. So I don’t know how it would be done, because of the MPAA members. You might be able to do it if you had a member company working with you. I think you’d want an agreement with the company that made the original ones.

Oh, and Hey U Guys also have a competition to win a Damsels poster signed by the man himself.

And now, an interview with a difference. At McSweeney’s, Joel Rice talks to Stillman about skateboarding:

JR: You anticipated one of my other questions, which was, “Have you ever tried skateboarding?” So the answer is yes.

WS: Yeah. I must have been present at the creation. The first months that skateboards were around I had one.

JR: Was your family supportive of it?

WS: Oh, yeah. But it was a really innocuous thing then. It was after you did your homework you go out… We were living in Georgetown, Washington, then. Behind the townhouse we lived in, there was an alley leading to the garages in the back. And it was at an incline, so I could go from the garages in the back and slide down to the alley in the back and turn down the hill. The sidewalks were brick. So you got a bit of a bump as you went down.

OK, it’s not all about skateboarding, and the non-skateboarding parts are also worth a read, managing to avoid all the usual questions Stillman’s been asked dozens of times already:

JR: My sense is that every year youth culture gets more and more extreme. Your characters often blanch at the coarseness of contemporary life and…

WS: No, I don’t think that’s true.

JR: You don’t think that’s true. Okay. Please go ahead.

WS: I think everything has multiple directions. So actually things are less extreme now than when I was in university. The university was much more extreme when I got there in 1969, when I first got there, than it is now. It was very extreme in September 1969, I can tell you. On college campuses now, there is more ’50s stuff going on than 1969 stuff.

And there we go, we’re now bang up to date. For a few hours, at least.

Greta Gerwig interviews

Only a couple of Greta Gerwig interviews about Damsels in Distress have appeared over the past week.

Greta Gerwig
Damsels in Distress: Greta Gerwig

First, Steven Rea at Philly.com has a horribly ugly article – swamped in ads and split over three pages – but I include it in the interest of completeness:

Gerwig says that at the first of the table reads, before production had started, she found herself struggling. “It felt in a way like I was preparing for a race. I would always start out pretty good, but then it would be like I got winded. Not literally winded, but I would run out of steam for the character. … I would start off strong and feel like I was kind of distinguishing the points she was making, and finding it, but it was so tiring that by the end it was all running together. So I had to take whatever initial spark I had, or instinct, and then just train myself to keep that going and make it work.”

An then “Bsimon” at ShockYa has a fairly long interview with Gerwig:

ShockYa: He also has a very specific pitch and meter to his dialogue. Did he talk about that a lot?

GG: Not per se. He wouldn’t give us specific direction regarding sound, but I would say the big thing for me, because I had such an idea of other people doing his dialogue, was getting those voices out of my head – like getting Chris Eigeman out of my head, or Kate Beckinsale out of my head. I didn’t want to be doing an imitation of the way they sounded when they did his dialogue, which is what I think what happens a lot with writer-directors with a very strong voice. In their later films, when people know what they’re doing, it’s what happens in Woody Allen films where they do an imitation of him. But when he was making films in the 1970s people weren’t doing imitations of what they thought it was. I think sometimes when things become iconic, the rhythms get set in a way that’s hard to break out of. The big thing for me was that I tried to come at it internally. It’s so tempting when you get a big monologue to score it almost like a musical score, and say, “Here’s the first thought, here’s the next,” to block it off and underline operative words and really prepare it because it’s a large chunk of text. But I tried to almost memorize it without meaning beforehand, and then find the meaning as I’m making my point to another person, so that I didn’t do this intellectual rhythmic process before, which would have been based on what his other actors had done. I tried to find the words spontaneously based on the thought pattern, if that makes sense. (laughs) Other people may do other things.

The art of courteous comedy

Damsels in Distress opens in the UK this Friday (hurrah!) so no doubt there’s more British press on the way, including this article at the Guardian by Michael Newton, who has an interesting comparison:

It is hard, even frightening, to imagine the contemporary British equivalents of Stillman’s movies. The films would be about boarding-school survivors, trustafarians, sloane rangers, a milieu ignored by most native film-makers. Memories of the appalling Oxbridge film Privileged (1982) may arise, but are best repressed. Was there any British film that portrayed the “yuppie” sympathetically? In the past 25 years, a British drama would have to balance the picture by bringing in other classes as parallel or counterpoint, as in Mike Leigh, or retreat to the past like Merchant Ivory, or both, as in Downtown Abbey. The tone could neither be so fond nor so contemporary as Stillman manages, things would be sharper, more obviously satirical. It’s Dickens versus Henry James.

It’s a fairly lengthy, perceptive and generous article about Stillman’s films, and Damsels in particular, and worth a read, especially compared to all those other fairly shallow reviews:

Carrie MacLemore and Billy Magnussen
Damsels in Distress: Carrie MacLemore and Billy Magnussen

His are courteous comedies; no one is mocked in his films. In Damsels in Distress, when we first come upon the apparent knucklehead, Thor, who does not know the names of the colours, we may wonder if we’re being invited to laugh at his stupidity. When we next hear of him, his ignorance is touchingly, and satirically explained: his parents were so hooked on the idea that precocity is a form of social triumph that they put him in school before he was ready, making him miss out on the last year of nursery, when his peers learned the colours. When Thor finally gets it, and ecstatically points out the colours in the rainbow, the laugh is, I think, on us. After all, when were we last delighted at colour itself?

Recent ‘Damsels’ reviews

It’s time to catch up on the past week’s reviews of Damsels in Distress. In no particular order, and paying unnecessarily close attention to the reviews’ ratings…

Hugo Becker and Analeigh Tipton
Damsels in Distress: Hugo Becker and Analeigh Tipton

At Toronto.com, Peter Howell gives the movie 2.5 out of 4:

…a second viewing of Damsels, after seeing it last year at TIFF, convinces me that what Stillman would really rather do, even if he doesn’t realize it, is to make a musical.

All his emphasis on dance, including several choreographed scenes and the climactic creation of a new Latin step called the Sambola, suggests Stillman would rather be a reborn Stanley Donen than a more literate Kevin Smith.

Sean Burns at Philadelphia Weekly gives the film a B+, saying:

Damsels in Distress is often chaotic, photographed with bizarre accents on candy colors, glowing, un-natural side-lighting and seemingly edited with a meat cleaver. Stillman has never lost his weird propensity for abruptly fading out of a scene in mid-conversation, with awkward title cards goosing along the passage of time. Lacking a third act altogether, the movie leaps mid-conflict into happily-ever-after territory, a structural shambles.

And yet I still loved it, sometimes not just in spite of its flaws but because of them. This is one fine mess of a movie, lurching here and there with nothing but affection and affectation.

Yet another rating scheme, this time with Katherine Monk giving Damsels 3 out of 5 at the Vancouver Sun:

Sure, it often looks like a post-modernist experiment where nothing looks like it’s supposed to, and sometimes the writing seems to lead nowhere, but that may be the whole point of this film about young women in search of epic meaning: The more you attempt to assign value to something, the less meaningful it becomes.

It’s back to a four-star-system now, with Colin Covert at the Star Tribune giving the film 3 out of 4:

Stillman’s efforts at broad comedy are pretty stiff. … Such creaky gibes feel out of place in the overall scheme of the film, which is about the casting off of one’s self-invented persona to become authentic.

When the various romantic knots are untied, the cast reunites in a buoyantly artificial musical finale. Stillman even diagrams the steps if you want to dance along.

In a sea of mean-spirited comedies, how wonderful to find one that openheartedly endorses happiness.

Next, it’s another 3 out of 4 from Steven Rea at Philly.com:

As Damsels shambles merrily along, Stillman does show a new what-the-heck kind of playfulness. (Detractors could argue that it’s a new kind of desperation.) There are sight gags …, and there are musical numbers, too…

On the surface, Damsels in Distress hardly seems to relate to what’s taking place on campuses today, in the real world. Beneath the surface, perhaps, Stillman’s small, sprightly film kicks around serious stuff about women and men, about social pecking orders and the pursuit of a dream. He kicks it around, but not very seriously.

Half a star less from Wesley Morris at Boston.com, giving the film 2.5 out of 4:

…this a fun group of actors to watch, although it often seems that Stillman is unsure of what to do with them. Damsels in Distress is Stillman in a literal mode that doesn’t suit his elegance. The four leads, for instance, are named after flowers. The characters watch Francois Truffaut and study Evelyn Waugh, but the movie’s true sisters are Heathers and Clueless and Mean Girls, satires with sharper claws.

Yet there’s a poignancy in Violet and her friends’ commitment to the preservation of nearly extinct ways of being young. These are women who seemed raised on Louisa May Alcott and might have been aspirationally besotted with Jane Austen. But you sense tragedy looming. They’re hurtling, inexorably, toward Tennessee Williams.

Over to the UK now, with Stella Papamichael at Digital Spy only giving a 2 out of 5:

…this isn’t the type of film that asks for emotional investment. Stillman presents the supporting players like cardboard cut-outs arranged for target practice in an endless assault of glib humour. It’s funny for a while, but eventually it begins to grate. Megalyn Echikunwoke has only one joke – pretending she’s British and deeming every boy an “operator” – and kills that fairly quickly.

The overriding problem is that the satire has no clear aim. Apparently, Stillman is having a dig at people who believe they are superior by taking a superior approach to them.

I’m pretty sure that’s very much not what Stillman’s doing, judging by all his interviews. Anyway, finally it’s 3 out of 5, given by Jonathan Crocker at Lovefilm:

What makes Stillman’s film work is that, despite its quirky absurdisms and upper-class caricatures, there’s a kindness to his film that we just don’t see in modern teen movies. It really cares for its characters – and so do we. At the movie’s heart is a curiously affecting performance from indie heroine Greta Gerwig, who shapes Violet into a strange, complex and adorable enigma.

And that’s all for now. I’ve probably missed some, so, as ever, post a comment if you’ve seen something worth sharing.