Sunday, April 22, 2012

Damsels in Distress (and The Deep Blue Sea)

Bluntly satirical and enjoyable, with punches of powerful sincerity, Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress" is a committed, considered film. Stillman has taken the medium of the "chick flick" (a la "Mean Girls") and used it to make his style into slightly less (yet still pretty damn) familiar territory. "Damsels" takes a close look at what intellect is and how it affects how people look at each other. The film considers two groups, the Damsels, a group of extremely contemptuous college students who run a Suicide Prevention Center, and "their Distress" (a group of men that ranges from frat boys to pretentious "operators" to hypocrites).

 It pays most attention to Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of the Damsels, and Lily (Analeigh Tipton), the transfer whom she and her friends (Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose and Carrie MacLemore as Heather) take in. Violet is a complicated story, very put-together, who changed her identity (she used to be "Emily Tweeter") and is sticking very rigidly to the new one. She feels a connection to a guy she sees as drastically inferior, Frank (a very chipper Ryan Metcalf), who is accurately described as a "moron." Lily, on the other hand, is relatable, the audience's entry point, seeing Violet in her sweet and charming turns but also calling out her often ridiculous sentiments. She's caught between Xavier (Hugo Becker, the least interesting performer with the least interesting character in the film), an older, manipulative college grad, and Charlie (Adam Brody), who's really Fred (who's pretty full of shit), who identifies himself as a "playboy operator" just as Rose constantly says of him.

Stillman is well-known for his archness; complex, "comedy of manners" style conversations; and dance sequences. This one encompasses all of those things, and it's a pleasure. But, unlike at least "The Last Days of Disco," which was a perfectly humorous but ultimately pretty simple venture, "Damsels in Distress" has some interesting underpinnings. Violet's aspirations towards a universal dance craze and her spreading of salvation via a bar of pungent soap show that the rigidly structured world of jocks and queens and waitresses and highwaymen is much more connected than it seems. These flourishes may just seem like flourishes, but they help "Damsels," rough around the edges but valuable all the same, transcend Stillman's normal trajectory. I was happy after having seen it. B+

On the other end of the spectrum is Terence Davies' 1950's-set "The Deep Blue Sea," a foggy, painstakingly put together tale with much subtext. However, it is of a piece with Stillman's work: it shows the director embracing some of his old traits (bar singing, jumbled chronology, beautiful camera) while trying to make a film in the modern day (by actually trying to tell a story instead of giving vignettes). Incredibly diffuse, it follows the love triangle of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), who's almost committed suicide, her separated but importantly not divorced husband William (Simon Russell Beale), who still loves her, and Hester's lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), who flew airplanes in WWII. Adapted from a Terrence Rattigan play, I've heard there are some gay issues involved, and it makes sense to me now thinking back on it. Maybe it's worth a second look. But a week after having seen it I'm left with not that much of an impression, and it seems to be a far less significant work in Davies' ouevre than the remarkable "Distant Voices, Still Lives" (the only other movie I've seen by him). One scene, somewhat disjointed feeling, does work very well: a long tracking shot through a subway station used as a war shelter as everyone there sings what seems to be a traditional tune. But not much else will retain with me. B- 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

(Late) Cannes 2012 Competition Reaction and Preview

So, I know it's been a couple of days since the Competition lineup was revealed, but I haven't had the time to put down my thoughts about it. It is, in my opinion, one of the best slates in a long time, with many superb highlights that would stick out in bland years but come together to form what will be a very entertaining festival to watch unfold. (I'd never thought I'd say that about a lineup that has multiple Matthew McConaghy films in it, but there you go.) There's no one film that sticks so obviously above the rest (as there was with "The Tree of Life" last year), but I actually think that's better. With the opening film (Wes Anderson's admittedly terrible-looking "Moonrise Kingdom") a part of the competitive action, no day this year will sag with the boredom of delayed anticipation.

The lineup has a good deal of extremely-anticipated films this year, so many that it's actually pretty hard to process what's at the very top of the field. So I'll start with the films that look to be the odd ones out and work my way towards the cream of the crop.

Im Sang-Soo's "Taste of Money" isn't making me too excited, considering how excruciating his remake of "The Housemaid" was. This looks like the exact same movie. Oh well. 

I can't say I'm chomping at the bit for the new Ken Loach film either, and "The Angel's Share" has the potential to be the next disappointment in the line that started with "Looking For Eric." The trailer makes it look like it was shot in 15 minutes. It has a slightly interesting idea (guy looks for success in wine), but it really looks like Loach hasn't stepped up the ante at all.

I know someone who worked briefly on it, but that only slightly raises my anticipation for "Moonrise Kingdom," the film that appears to see Wes Anderson delve completely into the bullshit that many have pegged his films to be his entire career. They haven't, though, so it's sad that this last film seems to be all surfaces and no meaning. It is Anderson, though, so there'll be a couple laughs, but I feel nearly nauseated when I watch the trailer, so I doubt that's a good sign.

 Much speculation has been made about "The Paperboy" by Lee Daniels (director of "Precious"), which seems like it could be more than a little soapy. Unless it has the power of a Mo'Nique, I can't say that it'll be able to stand in the company of American cinema in general, much less the masters in competition here. It must be said, though, that Daniels is the only African-American director in competition, and though Cannes represents international diversity of some sort, much of the lineup is still white Europeans (and men; no women this time).

I've never been the hugest fan of Walter Salles. Didn't like "Central Station." Really didn't like "The Motorcycle Diaries." And now here's his version of "On the Road," which could be another problematic buddy movie or something great. Indications are towards the former, but maybe not.

And since I really didn't like cult favorite "Wild Grass" at all or even "Last Year at Marienbad" that much, Alain Resnais' "Vous n'avez encore rein vu" (a.k.a. "You Ain't See Nothing Yet") doesn't hold the same prospect of excitement that it does for others. But it's surely pleasing to see what may be the last film of this acclaimed and long-spanning career to be shown here. Call it the Godard effect?

That concludes what I'm not particularly excited about. Everything else in the selection is worth at least a solid look, in my opinion. That was exhausting to work out, so I'll just go through the highlights in rapid-fire mode.

A few past winners are coming back for more: Michael Haneke, who's following up Palme d'Or winner "The White Ribbon" with "Love"; Jacques Audiard, who won Gran Prix for "A Prophet", with his Marion Cotillard-featuring and not-outstanding-looking-but-still-cool-due-to-his-reputation "Rust and Bone," Abbas Kiarostami, who won the Palme many years ago and who put on a show most recently with "Certified Copy," with the horribly titled but tantalizingly international "Like Someone in Love"; Mateo Garrone, who snagged a Gran Prix for his exceptional debut "Gomorrah," with what may be in my top 3 most anticipated films, "Reality"; and Cristian Mingiu, the welterweight of the Romanian New Wave, Palme d'or winner for "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," with "Beyond the Hills." Also back from previous competitions are "My Joy"'s Sergei Losnitza with "In the Fog," "Import/Export"'s Ulrich Seidl with "Paradise: Love," and most importantly to many, Carlos Reygadas, maker of the sublime "Silent Light," who has supposedly messed around massively with narrative to make "Post Tenebras Lux."

Other notables include "Cosmopolis," Robert Pattison's first real role in David Cronenberg's well-casted, hyper-sensationalized Don DeLillo adaptation; Yousry Nasrallah's "After the Battle," which looks like it could be a sleeper and one of the strongest films in competition based of its relevance to Egypt's current history; Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt," which could strike me right even if "The Celebration" struck me wrong; the amazing sounding "Holy Motors" by Leos Carax (who did a horrible segment in omnibus film "Tokyo!"); John Hillcoat's prestige-y, Shia Labeouf-y, "Road" follow-up "Lawless" (previously known as "The Wettest Country in the World"); Jeff Nichols' surprisingly quick follow-up to "Take Shelter" and competition debut "Mud" (also with Matthew McConaghy); Hong Sang-Soo's Isabelle Huppert collaboration and absurdist Competition debut "In Another Country"; and, extremely anticipated by me and many others, "The Assassination of Jesse James..." follow-up "Killing Them Softly" by Andrew Dominik. Sure to be a great Cannes.