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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.

‘Damsels in Distress’ reviews

Here we go with the next batch of reviews of Damsels in Distress

At the Daily Trojan, Laura Burdine loves the film:

Though Stillman’s screenplay undoubtedly brings brilliance and sophistication to the film – as an homage to the power of words – the cinematography and music bring the story to life.

The light and lively soundtrack lends a whimsical quality, while the feminine and airy color palette brings an ethereal feel to the piece, almost as if the picture were enhanced by one of Instagram’s trademark photo effects.

Stephen Hill at Bone-Idle gives it five out of five:

Damsels in Distress is a truly triumphant comeback for its director. Chock full of incredible performances and witty dialogue, it is one of the funniest and most intelligent films to be released this year. An instant classic.

James Bowman has probably the only review of Damsels that features a verse of a medieval student song that’s apparently alluded to at the start of the film:

Gaudeamus igitur,
Iuvenes dum sumus;
Post iucundam iuventutem,
Post molestam senectutem
Nos habebit humus.

[Let us therefore rejoice,
While we are young;
After our joyous youth,
After an irksome old age,
The earth will have us.]

For reasons that aren’t immediately obvious, the Chicago Tribune had two reviews of Damsels on the same day. One is by Matt Pais, giving the film four out of four:

Stillman’s rounded up excellent actresses (MacLemore in particular stands out as sweet, dopey Heather) to create multi-dimensional characters who can turn something seemingly moronic into food for thought. … Social examination almost never feels this lively, funny and insightful. Worth seeing twice (at least), Damsels represents nothing less than a great movie about a goofy world—an articulate swoon of smarts posing as stupidity.

The other review is by Michael Phillips who gives the movie three stars out of an unspecified number, and doesn’t reveal much of an opinion about it. He likes Greta Gerwig though:

Gerwig is a wonderful paradox on screen: a big, strapping blonde who never, ever muscles a scene in her direction, her feather-light touch doing wonders with Stillman’s most candied banter, turning it into something like actual human speech. Any time an audience (or many critics) encounter dialogue that sounds “written,” you can smell the negative rebound coming a mile off.

However, Ian Freer at Empire gives the film four out of five:

Gilded by a giddy Greta Gerwig, Damsels In Distress is a sharp, daffy, eccentric delight. Stillman may be an acquired taste, but no-one else is making films like this. Cherish it.

On the other hand, Braulio Ramirez at the Daily Californian isn’t keen at all:

The distressing thing about the script is that it never trusts Gerwig to single-handedly carry the movie, as she’s forced to share the spotlight with Tipton. The movie thus lies at a peculiar juncture within his usual level of quality. The killer dialogue and offbeat characters are still there, but the world of Seven Oaks is too disconnected from modern-day viewers. Unlike his previous films, which are rooted in realism, Damsels is anachronistic and alienating.

I may be biased, and everyone has different tastes, but it does sound a bit like Ramirez has missed something fundamental about Stillman’s world. Mick LaSalle at SFGate might agree with some points though, despite really wanting to like the movie:

See this, and you will find that there is something about this film that refuses to be watched. It’s very strange. You can almost say it simulates an experience of brain injury in the audience: Nothing adheres, nothing connects. It’s just nonstop cuteness, poses and emptiness – with nothing logically following from one moment to the next. It would be exaggerating to call it torture, and yet why split hairs?

This is a film by a director giving in to the impulse to mock himself, a director who might have been the American Eric Rohmer, but instead has become an uptown Hal Hartley, minus the conviction. Certainly, Stillman has a better movie in him than this wretched mess, something from the heart, without the smirking. That’s the Whit Stillman movie I want to see.

Ouch. I appear to have hit a seam of negative reviews here, with Tricia Olszewski at Washington City Paper saying:

Stillman’s return to the screen after 14 years qualifies as a disappointment—because its characters are unrecognizable to those of us inhabiting the real world, and because, despite its mounds and mounds of dialogue, it ultimately doesn’t have a sticking thought in its pretty head.

And, one more… Matt Fagerholm at Hollywood Chicago finds the first third of the film “laugh-out-loud funny” but isn’t a fan overall:

Gerwig’s performance is nearly worth the price of admission alone, but even her immense likability can’t transcend the shortcomings of this script. It’s been 14 years since Stillman made his last feature film, and I’m confident that he’ll have better films in his future. Yet some viewers can only take so much hyper-stylized preciousness before they’re driven to ask the waiter for the check while excusing themselves with Woody Allen’s old line, “I’m due back on planet Earth.”

After all that, we need a positive review to finish on, so here’s Peter Suderman at the Washington Times, who definitely likes the film:

Mr. Stillman … has gone goofy, and seems to be enjoying it. In interviews, the director has indicated that his previous films constituted a trilogy built in part out of autobiographical elements. Now, freed from some of his youthful dour impulses, he appears to be experimenting with a heightened comic affect. The experiment is not entirely successful: Tonally and structurally, the film is often uneven. Nor, ultimately, is it as memorable as his earlier work.

Even so, it is consistently funny, utterly charming, and literate in a way that’s rare for Hollywood. Mr. Stillman has not made a movie that quite matches his earlier work, but he once again has made a movie that only he could make.

Easter ‘Damsels’ reviews

If you still haven’t had enough of reading reviews of Damsels in Distress, here are a bunch more from over Easter. If you only read one, then Richard Brody’s in The New Yorker is maybe the most interesting. Here’s the current crop of longer and/or big-name reviews…

Farran Smith Nehme at the New York Post seems to like the movie (3.5 stars) with one caveat:

The episodic structure means some scenes feel disconnected, and Violet’s own bout of depression (“I prefer the term ‘tailspin,’” she tells people) goes on a little longer than desirable.

Greg Evans at Businessweek gives the film three stars (I assume out of five) and seems to like it, calling Greta Gerwig’s Violet “a breakthrough performance”.

J. Hoberman at ArtInfo is also keen on the film, and Gerwig, saying “her often ungainly, impossibly mannered Violet is the most authentic element in Damsel.” Hoberman also thinks the final musical number is a “shameless homage to the dreadful Woody Allen musical Everyone Says I Love You” which seems unlikely… surely, if it’s a homage, it’s a homage to other, older, musicals (although I haven’t yet seen it myself).

I think Sam Adams in the LA Times likes Damsels, although it’s a little hard to tell and even his sign-off is ambiguous:

Gerwig and Echikunwoke deploy weapons-grade poker faces, but Stillman too often substitutes pith for insight, until even that is drowned out by the sound of him chortling into his sleeve.

Across the continent, A.O. Scott in the New York Times also isn’t overly enthusiastic:

Mr. Stillman’s control of the tone also seems wobbly. The far-fetched absurdism of some of the humor — the boy who doesn’t know his colors, for instance — rubs awkwardly against some of the sharper satirical insights. The musical score, by Mark Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), evokes a bad television movie from the 1980s, and its deployment is as haphazard as the pacing and juxtaposition of the scenes. The actors often lack direction, both in the sense that they do not seem to have been instructed in how to play their roles and also in the more literal sense that they do not always appear to know which way to walk, or how fast.

At Hitfix Geoff Berkshire thinks that even if the movie isn’t perfect on first viewing, it’s built to last:

I have a hunch Damsels is the sort of film that seems enjoyable but slight on a first viewing, then ages surprisingly well over time. You know the kind: Quotes and characters linger in your memory long after you’ve seen it. You can’t pass up an opportunity to drop in on it during a cable rerun. And, in this case, Stillman has made an entertainment with enough depth to hold up over repeated viewings.

In the Atlantic Eleanor Barkhorn seems to feel something is lacking:

We’re meant to recoil from Lily’s celebration of averageness and embrace Violet’s “uniqueness, eccentricity, independence.” But the message doesn’t resonate. The movie is so set in its own fantasyland that the rules of this world don’t seem to apply.

There’s nothing wrong with a happy movie, of course. Stillman is right to reject the indie assumption that to be meaningful, a film has to be depressing. But it would have been nice to believe that some of the characters’ tap-dancing joy could be realized beyond Seven Oaks.

(I don’t know about you, but I’m realising how much of the average movie review is simply taken up with recounting the setting and the plot.)

Jeannette Catsoulis at NPR is much more positive, recommending the film:

Though the screenplay’s whimsy may be too rich for some, Stillman’s writing has a singular intelligence that has become an increasingly rare pleasure in the movie theater.

Richard Brody has a fairly long and interesting review in the New Yorker:

The controlled manners of [Stillman’s] superb quartet of actresses are now built on an expressly distant and prescriptive throwback to bygone Hollywood ways—emptied of history and of personality and infused with moralism. In the feminine bouquet that he gathers, the predominant bloom is Allan Bloom. Its sorrows are authentic; its anachronistic prescriptions suggest the proud doctrinal self-assurance of the latecoming prophet. Damsels in Distress is a great movie even though, at times, it’s not even a good one.

Dana Stevens at Slate loves the final dance number but doesn’t find the rest of the film quite convincing:

Stillman has always excelled at writing a certain style of comic dialogue in which characters converse earnestly with one another in a kind of hermetic preppy code, completely unaware of how ridiculous and insular they sound to us (though our disposition toward them is affectionate, not mocking). In fact, Stillman’s first and best movie, the effervescent drawing-room satire Metropolitan, took that code—and the characters’ anxiety about how it would translate to their imminent post-college lives—as one of its main subjects. In Damsels in Distress, the Stillman style has come unmoored from its reason for existence. Too ethereal to be a satire and too arch to be a psychologically recognizable character portrait, Damsels in Distress flits prettily by without ever finding anything to be about. We don’t know how to enter into any of the girls’ stories, though Violet’s comes frustratingly close to inviting us in.

And that’s all the reviews for now!

‘Damsels in Distress’ reviews

Oh, those simple days when any Whit Stillman-related article was well worth posting. With the imminent release of Damsels in Distress it’s now hard to work out which of the many articles and blog posts contain anything new or interesting, and which are merely parroting the others. So, if you spot something worthwhile which I miss, do post it in the comments for everyone else to see.

With that, here’s a round-up of some recent reviews, with some interviews and other reports in subsequent posts…

Paul Felton at the Brooklyn Rail is already a keen Stillman fan, and compares the new movie favourably with his previous work:

Violet [Greta Gerwig’s character] is the reductio ad absurdum of Stillman’s impish tendency to amplify his characters’ conservative sensibilities.

The A.V. Club’s review by Noel Murray, gives the film an A- grade:

Dig beneath the zippy chatter, vivid colors, absurdist turns, and occasional dance numbers, and at heart, Damsels In Distress is a Whit Stillman movie about the way young people try to define themselves, and how—“sane” or not—they hide their petty hypocrisies behind convoluted modifications to their public identities.

Drew Grant at the New York Observer is also positive:

Damsels in Distress is a sweet film putting on airs. It offers up an original view of all those “cool girls” in college with their great vocabularies and noses turned up, as well as the frat jocks who so often play the cruel foils to their more bookish counterparts. In Damsels, it is the nerds­ – like the head of the student paper Rick DeWolfe … – who are presented as the true cynics, while Violet, Frank and Charlie are the actual weirdos.

Eric Hynes at The Village Voice talks of how Stillman’s conservative viewpoint plays in 2012.

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.

The Epoch Times’ Joe Bendel gives the film only three stars out of five and is possibly alone in finding Gerwig’s otherwise highly-praised performance sub-par:

Frankly, Greta Gerwig seems awkwardly miscast here. She appears to struggle a bit with the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, but at least she is not a bad hoofer.

A welcome return for the erudite Stillman, Damsels in Distress suffers somewhat from a weak lead, but it still has enough to recommend it for the filmmaker’s fans and anyone who enjoys a verbally nimble film.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline prefers Analeigh Tipton’s performance, giving the film 6/10:

By the time Damsels in Distress winds its way toward its closing musical number … its romantic charms, meager to begin with, have worn thin, like a tweed jacket gone threadbare at the elbows. The thing has the feel of a vanity project, lacking urgency – like the work of a gentleman filmmaker who doesn’t have to work.

However, Miriam Bale at Slant Magazine is, like most, enthusiastic about Gerwig:

As played by Gerwig, Violet is one of the great female characters in cinema: an idiosyncratic visionary, gently nuts, and kinder than you. Gerwig has long been a smart girl playing winsomely vague, but here she gets to be wildly intense and intelligent, while showing off precisely calibrated comic timing.

And Bale is also enthusiastic about the film as a whole:

Stillman’s latest is not only his best, it’s a boost for what American independent cinema could be.

Courtney Howard at Very Aware is also very pleased, giving the film 4.5 out of 5:

Rare is the film that can transform your day from bad to good all within a brisk 99 minutes. Even rarer is a Whit Stillman film that can do this with a lack of upper class snobbery and condescending tone. I have to say, I was blindsided by how much I enjoyed his newest film, Damsels in Distress. It’s sparkling, witty (whitty?), and whimsically hilarious. And I’d wager this is Stillman’s most accessible work yet.

And that’s all the reviews for the moment.

UPDATE Half an hour later and Google showers me with more reviews. So:

The film only gets C+ at Entertainment Weekly:

If anyone can get away with the faux grandiosity of the dialogue, it ought to be Greenberg’s Greta Gerwig. Certainly she gives it the old college try, playing the leader of a group of coeds who “help” depressed students by offering counsel, encouraging good hygiene, and promoting the benefits of social dancing. Gerwig can’t make her character come alive, though, and neither can Adam Brody as one of their neediest male cases

Mary Pols at Time is much more positive though, agreeing with the more common view that the performances are good:

They are delightful: Echikunkwoke has perfect timing; MacLemore brings a dreamy sweetness to her more minor role; and Tipton, who played the adorably awkward babysitter in Crazy Stupid Love, neatly manages to convey skepticism and bravado with a touching vulnerability. She’s the voice of the audience, noting the hypocrisies and eccentricities of her “somewhat perfume-obsessed” friends as needed.

But Gerwig is the heart of the movie. She gives a beautifully contained performance as Violet.

There’s a B+ for the film at Film School Rejects:

Damsels in Distress is an irrepressibly twee cinematic experience, but Stillman and his cast are so earnest and honest with their work that it’s fully capable of delighting willing audiences. And, in between the introduction of “international dance crazes” and Violet’s obsession with a bar of soap she finds in a hotel bathroom, Damsels in Distress actually has plenty to say about such big stuff as love, dreams, and friendship – and the insanity that comes with wanting any of them.

And, really, truly, that’s it for now!

Two more ‘Damsels in Distress’ reviews

In case you haven’t read enough reviews of Damsels in Distress yet, here are a couple I haven’t yet linked to.

First, following the Venice screening, is this positive verdict (which contains mild spoilers) from Sight & Sound magazine’s blog. Gabe Klinger likes how much is, or isn’t, made explicit about the characters:

As in the director’s previous films, Damsels wears superficiality on its sleeve but ultimately manages to express something more deeply felt about its characters in the calibrated space that it leaves between scenes. It’s refreshing to see a movie dealing with young people that rewards the audience by not bombarding them with every detail they need to know about the characters (per Mean Girls (2004) and its ilk) right at the outset. Stillman also seems to be playing consciously with the disconcertment of an audience who will have to scratch their heads wondering whether they’re watching rote teen fair or a serious arthouse experiment (it stays tethered somewhere in between).

Second, off the back of Toronto, is Richard Corliss, writing for Time. He’s enthusiastic, ending his short review with this paragraph:

But we suspect that Stillman’s spokesman is Frank, a frat-rat currently working on “a history of the decline of decadence.” (The movie might be a larkish essay on the consequences of inconsequentiality.) Told that he’s romanticizing the past, Frank says, “Well, the past is gone, so we might as well romanticize it.” No less than Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, Stillman’s film is a tribute to emotions and genres a half-century old – sort of Gidget meets The Group. Innocence deserted teen movies ages ago, but it makes a comeback, revived and romanticized, in this joyous anachronism.

It also sounds like it’s well worth sticking around for the closing credits of the movie, so don’t go rushing out when you finally get to see the film!