Last Days of Disco, The (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are recent Hampshire College graduates who work in the same publishing house in Manhattan. At night, they often go to an exclusive disco club with hopes of meeting bachelors who might provide them romance. Although Alice and Charlotte are constantly around one another, one might argue they are not exactly good friends. You see, when men enter the equation, the foundation of their tenuous relationship is almost always stretched and bent near the breaking point. And yet somehow they think they need each other so their fights do not last for long.
Written and directed by Whit Stillman, the great contrast that “The Last Days of Disco” offers is between the vibrant music that is disco—so full of energy, life, and rhythm—and the young New Yorkers who are very intelligent but whose lives have flatlined. Although one can claim that the characters, or the archetypes they represent, are being satirized, one might also argue that the writer-director loves his subjects on some level because there is always a level of complexity to each of them. They are never treated solely as punchlines of a joke or a situation gone bad.
It does not mean any of them have to be likable. In fact, there is only one I found myself being able to sympathize with. The central characters, Charlotte and Alice, are snobs on different levels even if their personalities are almost polar opposites. Sevigny does a good job in making a quiet girl seductive. I enjoyed the scenes where Sevigny allows Alice to slink across the room to get a man’s attention, accompanied by her sultry bedroom eyes, but at the same time it is almost like the character is trying too hard in order to hide the fact that she is not very confident. Beckinsale, on the other hand, plays an aggressive character. Charlotte is the more confident half. She represents that girl who is so popular but the more one spends time with her, one wonders if she really has any true friends.
Most fascinating is the character named Josh (Matt Keeslar) whom Des (Chris Eigeman) often labels as a loon for having had a mental breakdown when the two were in college. Their relationship is interesting because just about every time Des says something even remotely derogatory, whether it be a name or an implication that Josh does not deserve to have the jobs he often gets, there is an undercurrent of envy. One of the most hysterical lines in the film is Des claiming that perhaps the reason why he is so happy is because he is not envious of anyone. It is a funny scene because we know better: We have grown to know him better than himself.
The romance between Josh and Alice is downplayed—but I was not entirely convinced such is the most appropriate avenue. Arguably, they are the two characters who are the best fit for one another. Perhaps a bit of genuine sweetness to penetrate the otherwise sour and sardonic tone might have made the movie feel more alive. But then the film is less about romance and more about how a certain era is romanticized.
“The Last Days of Disco” entertains through dry humor and private thoughts often being expressed in one’s attempt to become the center of attention. I did not like most of the characters, but I found myself always anticipating what they might say next. The group discussion about the underlying meanings embedded in the film “Lady and the Tramp” is most hypnotic. They talk about big ideas but they remain sitting on the couch, just waiting for time to pass.
★★★ / ★★★★
As the Cold War nears its end, Fred (Chris Eigeman), a navy officer, comes to stay with his cousin, Ted (Taylor Nichols), in Barcelona until his fleet arrives. Though their relationship is somewhat strained since childhood, they are the only cousins that each other have so they try to accept each other’s differences. As time passes, however, the every day challenge of being around one another proves to require more energy to endure. It does not help that Fred wears his Navy uniform wherever he goes which inspires strangers to call him “fascist” and other remarks of disgust.
“Barcelona,” written and directed by Whit Stillman, makes shallow characters worth getting to know. It is critical that they believe they stand for something, from being proud Americans living in foreign country to being romantics who yearn to find the right women. Though their lifestyle seems independent of real struggle, accompanied by a lot of complaining, they are interesting subjects because the more we try to understand them, we realize that perhaps we share some of their traits. Fred and Ted want happiness—whatever that means—which appears to vary from day to day.
Ted is the calmer half—at least on the outside. Nichols does a solid job capturing his character’s insecurities, especially when it comes to dating women that he thinks he deserves. He confides to his cousin that he thinks he might have a “romantic illusion problem.” So, in order to correct his condition, he plans to date women who look plain, maybe even homely. This way, he will have a higher chance of finding the so-called right woman because he will love her for who she is as a person rather than her looks.
In turn, we can ask two questions: 1) Can he truly force himself to view women differently just because he has come to a conclusion with regards to what might be wrong with him? 2) Even if he happens to find the “right” woman, will forcing himself to change get in the way of achieving true happiness? Though Ted dresses in a professional way, holds a nice job, and talks like a very educated adult, in a lot of ways he remains a child.
Fred, on the other hand, is an open book. Whatever thought comes across his mind, he has an urgent need to express it. He is the comedic core of the picture and Eigeman excels in allowing his character to communicate thoughts that may sound stupid without the character coming off vacuous. His monologue about shaving and telling false stories about Ted being into S&M match hilarious one-liners like why he looks so good when in front of a mirror but terrible in photos. At some point, I started to think that if I knew someone like him in person, I would want to be his friend because he is entertaining. But he is arrogant, too. His personality is not everyone’s cup of tea.
The material works because the writer-director is willing to dissect between who the characters are and what they stand for. Can they be separated? One of the subplots involves the increasing political tension between the Americans and the Spanish to the point where safety is an issue. I wished that the tension was in the forefront more often so that the more serious turn in the second half could have had a bit more punch. The middle section drags somewhat in that it repeats the revolving doors of women in the men’s lives.
“Barcelona” searches for meaning through characters who are lost. I admire movies that feature characters that I cannot read or figure out twenty minutes into it. Fred and Ted appear to change in small degrees, but a surprising scene comes around once in a while and you wonder if they have changed or learned anything at all.
★★★★ / ★★★★
While three friends are on their way to a party, Nick (Chris Eigeman) mistakes Tom (Edward Clements), standing next to a taxi, as one of the guests and insists that they all share a transport. Nick takes an immediate liking to Tom because something about him feels exciting. But Tom is not like Nick and his boarding school friends whose families live in New York City’s Upper West Side. Although he is dressed in a fancy suit, a rental, his parents had gotten a divorce and his father took all the money with him, leaving him and his mother on a budget. As a result of the divorce, he feels almost repulsed by the upper-class social scene. Gradually, however, he is drawn to it.
“Metropolitan,” written, directed, and produced by Whit Stillman, is a savagely funny portrait of very educated, wealthy, and self-absorbed young people. It is admirable that although the material pokes fun of them, it is apparent that the writer-director holds a level of affection for his subjects. Instead of treating them as mere targets of ridicule in order to construct a satirical comedy of manners, he gives them depth during unexpected moments even if it seems too late into the picture for us to revise our opinion of a person.
The first part has an air of predictability in the way Tom is seduced into the world urban haute bourgeoisie. Tom meets a person, they converse, they agree or challenge one another, and a tenuous mutual respect is established. It feels formulaic but the film does not stay rooted in this technique for long. As the protagonist grows comfortable with the types of personalities within the group, the material veers away from Tom to give us good reasons why the outsider wants to know more about his newfound friends. Some of them are as insufferable as our first impression but at least an attempt is made for us to be able to give a fair evaluation. But even the more unlikeable ones have the ability to surprise.
The college students discuss a pool of subjects, from social mobility and Marxism to literature and rules of courtship. There are subtle but important distinctions between conversations that occur as a group versus one-one-one. In groups, the intellect is at the forefront which consistently lead to fiery disagreements and name calling. When words are exchanged between two people, although there may be dissent toward views being expressed, the speaker and listener take a more sensitive approach. There is less competition; the mentality of one having to be right therefore the other having to be wrong is downplayed in order to make room for connections that feel true. There is an understanding that what these people have in common is more than money or habitat. They are drawn to one another because they challenge each other’s perspectives and expectations.
It is easy to dislike the subjects because they command jargon that many might find esoteric or pretentious. Admittedly, at times I was vexed with their unwillingness to let go of the pleasantries and simply express unveiled anger or frustration. But perhaps that is the point. These young men and women are so intelligent when it comes to books and ideas but they do not seem to have an emotional compass or a semblance of common sense. It made some me think of friends who are ace on paper but sadly do not have the skills necessary to function or flourish outside of academia.
If there is a great reminder in “Metropolitan,” it is that there is ignorance in all of us. It does not matter if one barely graduated high school or if one achieves the highest education in the most prestigious university. Some are just better at hiding it than others.
Damsels in Distress (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transferring sophomore in Seven Oaks University, was approached by a trio of girls because they believed that Lily needed a sort of saving from herself. Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) were strong proponents of social work. In their eyes, “social work” meant finding people who were inferior to them and rescuing these so-called pathetic individuals. So strong were their convictions to help others, they ran a suicide prevention center on campus in which their most effective form of therapy involved tap dancing. Written and directed by Whit Stillman, “Damsels in Distress” was savagely funny, propelled by an unflinching dialogue that felt absurd yet satirical. The more we observed these characters, the funnier they became without even trying. My favorite specimen to take under a microscope was Violet, the leader of the quadruplet appropriately named as flowers–their appearances fiercely alluring and their actions, on the surface, seemed like the gentle helping hand of Mother Theresa. When Violet was calm, the sentences she uttered did not contain contractions. She spoke, essentially, like a robot which made listening to her somewhat of a trial because I didn’t know whether to laugh at her or succumb to her authority. When criticized, especially by Lily, instead of acting like an oak, breaking from her own insecurities, she bended like a reed, took the criticism for what it was and attempted to better herself in case she needed to give a similar seed of wisdom to someone else in the future. I enjoyed that Violet was a complex character, not just some mean girl who wore nice clothes but was truly ugly on the inside. Like the other girls, while she had the tendency to look down on others, the more we spent time with her, it became clearer that their group, as eccentric as they sounded at times, genuinely believed what they stood for. In its own twisted way, I found that to be the heart of the picture. Issues that surrounded them, like boy problems (Hugo Becker, Adam Brody, Ryan Metcalf), were often uncertain. What it came down to was the fact that these women were still willing hang out with each other, sometimes having not much of a choice since they were roommates, at the end of a bad day. Like Lily’s relationship with the other three, our relationship with all of them was, at best, sprinkled with reluctance. We all have friends who we consider “sort of” a friend. We hang out with them, we listen to their stories, and sometimes we even find ourselves unguarded in sharing personal information with them. And yet in the back of mind we just can’t help but not trust them completely because there’s something that feels off about them. As unbelievable as some of the events that transpired in the film, Stillman captured the essence of the fragility human relationships. I admired his boldness in experimenting with and subverting our expectations of campus comedy and foibles of friendship. However, it didn’t feel as though the picture had an ending that we nor the characters particularly deserved. Breaking into a musical number, while fun and energetic, felt like the writer-director shirking responsibility in giving us something worthwhile. But since everything prior to that point was handled with such vision and confidence, perhaps the filmmaker was making a statement. If indeed he was, too bad it went right over my head.