Damsels in Distress
It's been thirteen years since we've gotten a film from the sinisterly funny wordsmith known as Whit Stillman. Thirteen years. Over his long hiatus since the yuppie disco opus The Last Days of Disco, Stillman has had a number of projects on the go, none of which came to fruition until Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore became the Damsels in Distress.
Imagine if you tasked the man behind Metropolitan with a job where he must combine the strained sisterhood in Heathers with the ridiculous dumbness and sense of charity in Clueless. That is, essentially, his latest film. The damsels are a tight-knit group of students at an east-coast university set in a timeless modern day (there are e-mails, but they girls wear retro dresses and never speak on cell phones). Violet (Gerwig) and her lackies lead very pristine lives. They recoil at the slightest hint of body odor, they specifically target stupid boys for dating, and they spend much of their time running a suicide prevention center, though none should ever really be intermingling with the emotionally volatile.
Tipton's Lily (yes, they all have flowery names) is the new girl taken under Violet's wing, and she finds herself drawn to their strangeness as much as she is repulsed by it – though it's no big deal – Violet considers Lily's criticism to be healthy for her growth. But their clique begins to fracture when Lily meets Charlie (Adam Brody), a young man who possesses his own wild mix of idiosyncrasies.
Damsels is a Stillman satire with a whimsical, laugh-out-loud edge. Less reserved than his previous films, the comedy pummels the audience with repeated absurdity that ranges from Stillmanesque toilet humor to an obsession with soap and starting dance trends. Where his Disco characters might talk about how Scrooge McDuck is sexy and then recoil at their idiocy, the Damsels thrive in their weirdness as if Stillman funneled every bit of comedy and creative discontent into this one film. And though it feels a little funny to see this world play out without the usual angst of Eigemann, Whit Stillman has discovered Greta Gerwig – a wonderful replacement to keep carrying the torch.
Cafe de Flore
There is something about modernity that makes Jean-Marc Vallee thrive. After a momentary pause to explore the experiences of a Young Victoria, the C.R.A.Z.Y. filmmaker returns to his native French for a truly beautiful two-part story. In modern day Montreal, a DJ (Antoine, played by Kevin Parent) is torn between his current partner and his ex-wife and childhood love, and his experiences are juxtaposed with the world of Jacqueline, a single French mother (Johnny Depp's long-time partner, Vanessa Paradis) raising her young son with Down syndrome in a much less ability-progressive 1969 Paris.
At first the stories seem like they have little in common but music. Like C.R.A.Z.Y., the world completely rests on an adoration of sound. For Antoine it is the animalistic beats of house music intermingled with the bands of his youth, while Jacqueline structures her son's world around the song “Cafe de Flore.” This song is their first link. She plays it for her young boy every day, and Antoine loves to remix it. But as we see more of their lives – Antoine struggling to deal with his ex-wife and children, Jacqueline desperately struggling to give her son a long life that defies expectation – their worlds start to interconnect.
To explain how would unveil a mystery that takes the entire film to explore. It's as if John Sayles became French and fell for modern music. Vallee takes these two seemingly disparate worlds and increasingly intermingles them in a really touching and profound way that offers emotional release just as much as it asks questions and challenges the viewer. There are possibilities to Antoine and Jacqueline's connection, and there are realities. It's equal parts gorgeous, sweet, and dynamic, a film that will latch onto you and pluck at the strings of curiosity and creativity.
50/50 is a warm and continually funny look at cancer, but it’s a cancer comedy like Hitler is a dictator: the words are true, but they don’t begin to divulge the meaning they should. A handful of years ago screenwriter Will Reiser, Seth Rogen’s best friend, battled back cancer. When he came out the other side, his friends urged him to write about the experience and 50/50 is the result – a film that applies his experiences, both humorous and serious, to a fictional landscape.
The film thrives for two main reasons. First, the cast is perfectly placed. Joseph Gordon Levitt is the pitch-perfect choice for a nice-guy obsessed with doing the right thing, but gets none of the professional or personal rewards. Seth Rogen essentially plays himself, and he’s always at his best as the wry comedic relief. That’s to say nothing of Anna Kendrick as an awkward new counselor, Angelica Huston as the overprotective mother, and Bryce Dallas Howard as the self-involved artist girlfriend. In addition to the wonderful collection of talent, the writing is genuine. The script offers that easy-going nature of real-life mixed with the human awkwardness inherent in terrible situations. Everyone means well, but reacts in vastly different ways, from saying the right thing but wanting the opposite, to being too helpful, to trying too hard to keep things normal.
Unfortunately, a sinuous romantic vein running through the film keeps it from being all that it can be and adds some disappointing cliched layers. Ultimately, however, 50/50 is both a joy and an important reminder about the need to balance normal living with heart in unfortunate situations like these.
Violet & Daisy
Violet & Daisy is not the assassin movie we've grown accustomed to. It starts off that way – a super-saturated orange and blue hue revealing Alexis Bledel's Violet and Saoirse Ronan's Daisy walking into an apartment building dressed as nuns and telling a joke, before flipping in the blink of an eye and killing a group of burly thugs. It seems like Pulp Fiction, if Quentin Tarantino's Jules and Vincent were two beautiful young women killing against super-sweet retro music and a distinctly whimsical edge. But this time around it's actually Geoffrey Fletcher's ode to cinema, starting in familiar territory before expanding into a cinematic world of quirky symbolism and heart.
The directorial debut from the Oscar-winning Precious scribe, Violet & Daisy is about two killers who hit a crossroads when they're tasked with killing a seemingly sweet older man named Michael (James Gandolfini). He bakes cookies and treats them with care, turning a simple job that will help them by new dresses (from pop diva Barbie Sunday's fashion label) into a mess that could end their lives. A comedy of bloody, bubble-gum errors and bad luck, the pair contend with Michael's sweetness, a rival gang, and a strange woman who watches from a distance.
It's a refreshingly unique spin from a first-time filmmaker who made his mark adapting an emotionally challenging book. It speaks to his range just as much as the many juxtapositions within the film. Fletcher isn't content with a clear-cut, clearly genred film. Instead, he flirts with style and tone to create a fun and ass-kicking world of sweet and deadly assassins.
For his first dramatic feature since Brand Upon the Brain!, Guy Maddin returns to long-form filmmaking with a mischievous haunted house/ghost story called Keyhole. Once again, he delves into the problematic nature of family, an old-hat premise that is invigorated by a helping of chills and dread that bring him very close to the Lynchian. The world of Keyhole is a world that mixes the mystic and the human, where you can imagine a red curtain swaying and horns purring.
Jason Patric – whose jaw was made for Maddin's shadow-ridden black and white filmmaking, whose presence blends beautifully in the Canadian filmmaker's vision – stars as Ulysses Pick, a gangster who’s holed up in his old home with some gun-toting cohorts. He also has two hostages – a bound young man and a young, water-drenched girl who will help him navigate the rooms and keyholes so that he might find and reconcile with his wife (Isabella Rossellini). The men aren’t too keen about the secrecy of this mission, but Ulysses doesn’t care. He simply takes his hostages from room to room, and the journey and discourse with his gang reveal both the mysteries of the past and the thin divide between what is living and what is dead.
Keyhole is a fun mixture of the old and the new. The film marks Maddin’s steps into digital as he turns in his lo-fi Super 8 for a digital SLR, but thankfully his gorgeously eerie and aged black-and-white haze remains. Fans will also recognize a sprinkling of his recent work throughout the frames of the film, both spiritual similarities and actual segments, most notably the similarly themed 2008 short Glorious (both the guns-and-gangsters theme and the infamous “glory wall” of oral pleasure are present).
It doesn't have the same manic impact of previous films like My Winnipeg, but Keyhole does boast a landscape that should only become richer with multiple viewings.
[More details can be found at the film’s Tumblr diary.]
Edwin Boyd is a period piece about a man, not a time – an angle that suits both the story and the problematic nature of filming the past in a modern city. Based on a true story, the film outlines the rise and fall of Edwin Boyd (Scott Speedman) – a World War Two veteran struggling to provide for his wife and their family, who decides to take the path of ease, danger, and excitement – bank robbery.
Though the film speaks to the haze of post-war disillusionment and the thrills descend when breaking the law, Edwin Boyd is ultimately and distinctively about a man. Focusing quite firmly on the aptly cast Speedman, the world of post-war Toronto is little more than a glimpse of a carefully selected door, storefront, or home. Boyd's face rests against dusty windows, wintry landscapes, and foggy skies, and his feelings are revealed through music. Instead of a score to tug at our emotions, the music reflects his inner moments of discontent or verve – melancholic as he struggles in a blue-collar life, and frenetically energized when he jumps over the bank divide and charms the tellers while stealing all nearby cash. It's no surprise that he's soon caught and his one-man army of robbery becomes a gang of other jailed ne'er-do-wells, orchestrating epic breaks from the infamous Don Jail, pulling off bigger heists, and falling victim to the group's quirks and personal dramas.
This isn't a based-in-truth story that takes radical artistic license with the truth, or spends hours musing on possible motivations and environmental influences. Instead, Edwin Boyd is the cinematic snapshot of a man desperate to live beyond his means and potential, honestly and dynamically portraying one of the city's most iconic criminals.