‘Dark Horse’ & ‘Damsels in Distress’: A Tale of Two Departures

toysrus

One of the best shots in recent history. This, right here, is how you say ‘fuck you’.

Dark Horse (2011)
Written and Directed by Todd Solondz
86 min.

Spoiler-free.

I should’ve seen this one in theaters. But I didn’t. I listened to people. I should never listen to people. People are shit. By ‘people’ I mean those-who-tell-you-a-movie-sucks-and-that-it-is-an-unwelcome-departure-from-said-filmmaker. Those people. Fuck those people.

Why is it that they never caution you about the right movies? I would’ve killed for someone to tap me on the shoulder before I saw Damsels in Distress and warn me that Whit Stillman—a once perfect filmmaker of remarkable integrity—has decided to cop out and pander to a generation he doesn’t understand, and isn’t even worth understanding. But no. They had to warn me about this one instead.

Look, yes Dark Horse is a bit of a departure—but only in the sense that it lacks a certain ‘obviousness’, if you will. Previously, if you’d seen one Solondz movie, you’d seen them all, and I don’t mean that in a bad way—I like all his films. I just mean that he has a very distinct vibe and approach. With Dark Horse, you aren’t immediately sure what it is you’re watching. There are Solondz-y undertones, but the overtones are jarringly ‘mainstream’. It is not immediately clear if said overtones are intended to be satirical, or if Solondz has simply ‘gone soft’. Only towards the end of the first act does it start to become clear what his intentions are with the piece. Unfortunately, some viewers still took the entire thing at face value.

It’s likely that Jordan Gelber’s brilliant performance as the titular ‘dark horse’ is largely what fooled them. He is so good that for the first act of the film, it’s hard to tell if he’s ‘doing’ smarmy acting, or if he’s really just a smarmy actor. Over the course of the rest of the film, we get to see the full range of what he is capable of, and let me tell you, this guy is one to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting award-bait dramatic work sometime soon.

The supporting actors are all great as well. Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow, and the rest all turn in refreshingly restrained performances. In fact, it’s quite hard to find a bad performance in any Todd Solondz film. Everyone comes to work to work. And, as unfortunate as it is that his films have such low budgets, and don’t make much at the box office, I’m sure this helps repel actors who are just in it for the money. One does a film of his out of respect for him, and for the material.

Also worth noting is that this could go down as one of the best movie soundtracks ever to not receive an official Motion Picture Soundtrack. Were it available, I would’ve bought it online right after I finished watching the movie. The song choices are absolutely brilliant. And they may seem at first listen like songs that are popular and easy track down, but they’re deceptively obscure. A lot of care was taken by Solondz and whoever else picked the music.

I expect Dark Horse will find proper love and respect years later, much like a similarly misunderstood subversive masterpiece, Freddy Got Fingered. The two actually share a lot in common—both center around unsympathetic manchildren who attempt to mold the world to their whims and desires, and are sneakily acerbic satires of the Hollywood comedies of their respective decades. I highly recommend both.

4 out of 5 Codys.

damsels


Damsels in Distress (2011)
Written and Directed by Whit Stillman
117 min.

Spoiler-free.

It really pains me to write this negative review, because I’m a huge Whit Stillman fan. Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco (commonly referred to as the ‘Whit Stillman trilogy’, not because the stories are related, but because they deal with similar themes and have a few of the same actors) are absolutely delightful, and some of my very favorite films. I’ve seen each of them many, many times. Damsels in Distress, I never want to see again.

Before I get into why, first, a little background about Whit Stillman. Those three great films I mentioned were released in 1990, 1994, and 1998, respectively—and then we didn’t see anything new from Whit until 2011. In part, because he wanted to take a break and be with his family (admirable, and well-earned) but also due to the fact that the projects he wanted to do kept not getting off the ground. Financing is difficult, even for established filmmakers. Things fall through at the last minute, or don’t happen at all, not necessarily because a project is bad, but because Hollywood is a fickle beast. I’ve had a taste of the gauntlet myself, albeit a small one, and in my experience, this was quite true. Which is not to say that Hollywood is all bad—just that its reputation for myopia is well-earned.

One project in particular of Whit’s that kept not happening is a dream project called ‘Dancing Mood’, set in Jamaica during the 1960’s and centered around the church music of Kingston. According to him, it’s been an absolute nightmare to get made. He began working on putting it together around the time he was making The Last Days of Disco, and it’s been a roller coaster ever since. For years, I would check his IMDB page and its message board every so often for new scraps of information about this project, or any project of his pipeline—and then one day, out of nowhere, there was Damsels in Distress. A Whit project no one had previously heard of, suddenly in production and raring to go. To say I was ‘excited’ is an understatement. The ‘Whit Stillman trilogy’ is like the Star Wars trilogy of independent films about 20-somethings talking. (Not in popularity of course, just in significance and sacrality to those who love them.) And Damsels in Distress, sadly, is The Phantom Menace.

The characters in Damsels seem sort of like Whit Stillman characters, but there’s something off about them. I hate to use two geek metaphors in one review, but I must say, it’s kind of like how the Turtle costumes look in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III as compared to the two previous TMNT movies. Cheap. Impostor-y. As you’re watching, your brain is so busy wondering who the hell these puppets are, walking around in a Whit-ish way, saying Whit-ish things that don’t feel fully Whit-ty, that it’s hard to even pay attention to the plot.

And when you do pay attention to the plot, you wish you hadn’t, because it’s all over the place. Whit’s scripts are usually very tightly constructed—this one, not so much. And as for individual lines, there are a few clever Whit-icisms (last Whit pun, I promise) peppered throughout, but mostly they’re cheap and lazy. The script feels more like a bad one he was hired to ‘punch up’ than something he wrote entirely himself (although, embarrassingly, he did).

The look of it feels inherited as well. The visuals are soft and bloomy, like a TV show for teens. And the costuming is very ‘on the nose’, so to speak. Every character dresses exactly like you would expect, almost cartoonishly so, leaving no room for any individuality to come through. Not my particular taste as far as production design goes, but if the script were good, and the characters engaging and believable, I would’ve been fine with it. Unfortunately, there just isn’t any substance here worth trudging through the generic visuals for.

The whole thing is just a total pander-fest. Like Phantom Menace, it is so clumsily and over-calculatedly geared towards a young, dumb audience that it can’t possibly fully appeal to anyone of that demographic except its lowest common denominator. This is a movie I might’ve liked when I was in my early teens—if and only if I had literally never seen a single other quirky Indie flick before. (Much like how, I’m sure, to a kid, Phantom Menace rules if they haven’t see the original trilogy yet.)

I could have been totally down with every single aspect movie, from the lines that don’t fully work to everything else wrong about it, if only it had all been in the name of satire (a la, ya boy Dark horse). But it’s very clear that Whit sees the world he’s constructed as fun, and whimsical, and charming—whereas Solondz sees the world he has crafted in Dark Horse as a hellish existence. Me thinks Whit’s been watching too many CW and ABC Family shows, and quite simply sees a virtue and charm to them that ain’t really there. (Which, funnily enough, is the kind of thing a character in a good Whit Stillman movie would do, and then pontificate about, to friends at a bar. That would’ve been a good scene.)

Around the time Damsels came out, Whit insisted in Q&A’s and interviews that Dancing Mood would be his next film. Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. The latest news I could find has him saying that his next project will likely be one with much of the same cast of Damsels. Oh brother. Could this mean we end up with a trilogy of films with roughly these same actors, and this same awfully misguided feel? If so, it’s safe to say he’s the George Lucas of Indies.

2 out of 5 Codys.

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One Response to ‘Dark Horse’ & ‘Damsels in Distress’: A Tale of Two Departures

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