Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
Perhaps the overbearing film festival climate is to blame, but this light, witty comedy from the usually sophisticated Stillman hit a sweet spot for me. Set at a traditionally females-only east coast private university, the film follows a group of young women who are hilariously earnest in their “outreach” efforts to the local male population. Volunteering at the campus suicide prevention clinic and dating far beneath their means are their most notable acts of charity, and their unorthodox methods of helping (donuts, hygiene tips) provide many of the laughs here. Like Stillman’s past films, self-imposed social rules and standards are exploredS, and while this might not be his most insightful work, it’s quite possibly his most consistently funny. The characters here always threaten to become caricatures, but deftly avoid true glibness, giving the film the feel of a high-wire act that favorably recalls Heckerling’s Clueless. It’s disconnected from reality, but in a pleasing way. The cast is excellent, with Gerwig the note-perfect standout.
Like Crazy (Drake Doremus)
Not sure what this was going for exactly. With a zillion snippets of conversation, it recounts several years in the mundane romance of two young college students who run into visa trouble. The toll that distance takes on their on-again, off-again relationship is anything but revelatory, and you would think that director Doremus would isolate more distinctive moments from their lives if he was going to chop them up like this. Instead, we get an infinite number of shots of the two inadequate leads sulking and absurdly stupid moments like the one in which she breaks the bracelet he gave her (inscribed “Patience”!) while having sex with another man. Neither of these lousy actors seems to have much of a character to play, and audiences who keep waiting for their tale to develop into something that works on a deeper level will be doing so in vain. Pretty unlikeable.
Snowtown (Justin Kurzel)
There’s a thin line between creating a pervasive atmosphere and dragging one’s feet, and I think Justin Kurzel, in his debut film, falls on the wrong side of it. This true-crime story of what is apparently Australia’s worst series of serial killings, is told entirely from the perspective of the perpetrators, who acted in a small group. This gambit ensures that Snowtown is exceedingly seedy and capable of taking audiences into a dark place, but I found myself largely undisturbed by it. There’s little effort to focus on psychology here, as the film seems more caught up in procedure. The most surprising moments come as we see these people make a clear demarcation between the evils of, say, child molestation (many of their victims were homosexuals and pederasts) and the apparent acceptability of torturing people to death. Things are definitely not sensationalized here, as events are neither played for thrills nor turned into opportunities for lyricism. This gives Snowtown some hard-earned grit, but perhaps costs it perspective on the events that it depicts.
Pariah (Dee Rees)
One suspects that the fluke success of Precious is desired for this well-acted and well-shot but predictable coming out drama. This is a far less singular effort, to be sure, which might be seen as an asset for those who found the histrionics of Daniels’ film to be a bit too much. In my view, as well done as it is and as vividly as it realizes its Brooklyn setting, Pariah’s decision to focus on its teenage protagonist’s anxieties and sensual experiences comes at a price. The film seems content to view the girl as a lesbian first and an emerging mind (she’s a straight A student) only as an afterthought. A better film would have paid more mind to her intellectual coming out. There’s little doubt here that the resilient young Alike will find her way in life, which limits the potency of the drama somewhat. Still, well done, if precisely what one would expect it to be.
Kotoko (Shinya Tsukamoto)
A true mindfuck, this maternal drama is recognizable as the product of the director who brought us Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Tsukamoto uses an extremely loud soundtrack, vibrating camerawork, superimpositions and double vision in an attempt to approximate the mind of his mad heroine. A new, single mother, who soon has her child taken away from her, Kotoko’s waking hours are spent imagining horrible fates that might befall her child (many of which the director makes real). Her reclusive nature makes the film recall Polanski’s Repulsion, to be sure, but this is a more extreme (if less subtle) vision of madness. Gory scenes in which Kotoko cuts herself are interspersed throughout the narrative, and fantasies often threaten to take over, leaving us uncertain of where reality lies. This portrait of a modern-day Medea is a largely uncompromising vision of madness, taken farther than many viewers will like, but it’s been made with enough horrible conviction that it becomes tough to shake.
Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sanchez)
In many respects this deliberately paced spiritual successor to Blair Witch is a tired retread of an overdone conceit. Still, I found it to be a somewhat unsettling viewing experience, so there must be something done right here. The narrative here is a simple tale of possession in which a recovering drug addict/abuse victim returns to the home where her dead father assaulted her. The gradual encroachment of madness here gives the film a deliberate pacing that really doesn’t pay off, but the sheer unpleasantness of Molly’s slow decline was enough to make the film work for me. Sanchez’s mixture of conventionally shot scenes and those done in the first person works well, and the film often manages to feel creepier than it has any right to, given how stupid it all feels by the time it’s ended.