The characters in Damsels in Distress and The Pirates! Band of Misfits were born to belt out show tunes, but with one notable exception, they stop shy of going the full Rodgers and Hammerstein. These featherweight treats might only be musicals in spirit, but they still gave your intrepid reviewer an extra spring in his step.
In Damsels, the fourth and most accessible comedy of manners by East Coast auteur Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco), playfully astute commentary on social mores replaces singing and dancing (though there’s a generous portion of the latter throughout the film). The setting is Seven Oaks University, where Violet Wister (Greenberg’s Greta Gerwig) takes disoriented transfer student Lily (Crazy, Stupid, Love’s Analeigh Tipton) under her wing. The fictional campus, which had gone coed decades ago, still feels like a very male environment, an unfortunate state of affairs Violet and her roommates Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) seek to remedy. Their target: the depressed sad sacks who request their assistance at the college’s “Suicide Center.” (It seems some joker tore off the word “Prevention” from the building’s sign.) Violet intends to unify this disconnected student body by turning the Sambola, a dance with the potential to improve “the life of everyone and every couple,” into an international sensation.
Using Lily as an audience surrogate, Stillman navigates the choppy waters of what it means to be young and WASPy in this insular environment. (He ought to know. His godfather, E. Digby Baltzell, popularized the term WASP.) Should Lily choose Xavier (Hugo Becker), her sexually unorthodox crush, or should she be more receptive to the old-fashioned courtship cues from slick businessman Charlie (Adam Brody)? The Oscar-nominated filmmaker tries to do for East Coast liberal arts institutions what Spike Lee did for historically black colleges in School Daze. (Think Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You as remade by Wes Anderson.) Like Jane Austen – a kindred spirit and a huge influence in much of his work – Stillman weaves a web of romantic entanglements that doubles as a commentary on his own societal sphere, and he discovers there are plenty of similarities between the way young men and women interact with one another in early 19th Century England and the present-day American equivalent. I refrain from using the term “contemporary” because there’s a strangely outdated – though not obsolete – vibe coursing through Damsels in Distress. You never see these kids crack open a book, but when they open their mouths, complex observations on matters both mundane and weighty come flowing out with an essayist’s eloquence. Stillman even finds the time to insert a non sequitur about the mainstreaming of gay culture, but like most of his characters’ musings, it’s ever-so-slightly behind the times.
Doug Emmett’s sun-dappled photography makes the girls look like they’re lit from within, the better to enhance Stillman’s idealistic, rambling portrayal of college life. The director subjects his strong-willed heroines to betrayal, disappointment, and the dim-witted fratboy menace, but he never takes off his rose-colored glasses. (I mean this literally as well. The Sony Pictures Classics logo at the beginning of the film has been turned pink.) This is especially true of the glorious musical number that ends Damsels in Distress. Stillman’s brand of cheerful elitism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but any college comedy that extols “the transformative qualities of motel bar soap” makes its more conventional counterparts seem really stale by comparison.
More than another breath of fresh air, The Pirates! Band of Misfits is sure to elicit a feature-length sigh of relief from stop-motion animation purists everywhere. The new film from Aardman Animations, the English production company behind the utterly delightful misadventures of Wallace (a trouble-prone inventor) and Gromit (his much smarter dog), is the first feature in over a decade from Chicken Run co-director Peter Lord. If the eye-popping results are any indication, the Aardman folks ought to stick with clay, silica and latex. Let’s face it: The virtually rendered Flushed Away only had a fraction of its predecessors’ charm.
Adapted from the first volume in a series of comedic novels aimed at young adults, The Pirates! follows the globe-trotting escapades of the genial – if inept – Pirate Captain (the voice of Hugh Grant) and his motley crew. Their biggest joy in life is not plundering or pillaging which, admittedly, they don’t do well at all. It’s Ham Night, of course. (Their fixation almost rivals Wallace’s fondness for – get ready to shake your arms – cheeeese!) There’s also the prospect of claiming the coveted Pirate of the Year trophy at Blood Island, but it looks like Ian McShane lookalike Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) has a lock on the award. Or does he? An attempt to take over a defenseless ship brings the merry mariners face to face with none other than a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who is looking to win his own science prize. The naturalist takes one look at Polly, the Captain’s pet parrot/good luck talisman, and knows he has made the discovery of the (19th) century.
Number Two, the Captain’s right-hand man (Martin Freeman, aka The Pirate with a Scarf), smells a rat, but he’s not able to stop his commander from accepting Darwin’s invitation to accompany him back to London, even though they know Queen Victoria (a deliciously ruthless Imelda Staunton) is not exactly fond of their lawless kind. What ensues is a series of elaborate setpieces and inspired sight gags (cannonballs, for instance, are released like billiard balls), barely strung together by the slimmest of plots. Author Gideon Defoe makes a promising feature screenwriting debut reimagining his own book for the screen, but by adding a narrative arc that traces the effects of the Captain’s lust for glory, he makes the film feel more formulaic than it should. Defoe’s dialogue cannot begin to keep up with Lord’s splendid visual calisthenics, which seem to operate at a higher, more accomplished level. In addition, the inclusion of decidedly non-British voices like Piven and Salma Hayek in supporting roles results in moments of jarring, Babel’s-tower cacophony. The English cast, however, is uniformly excellent.
The Pirates! doesn’t quite soar like the work of Lord’s collaborator Nick Park, but the director is still able to pull off some impressive feats of animation. Working for the first time with 3D cameras, he takes full advantage of the more immersive format… even though it’s not always vital to the film’s visual richness. The opening shot, in which the camera pulls back until we’re looking down on Queen Victoria’s dining chambers, is a stunner. A madcap chase sequence inside Darwin’s creepy mansion recalls the toy-train climax of The Wrong Trousers, still Wallace and Gromit’s finest hour. What ultimately holds The Pirates! together is the (not always) symbiotic union between Lord and Defoe’s comic sensibilities. When they’re in sync, they showcase Aardman’s happiest contradiction: The more British their humor is, the more universal its appeal becomes. Even without the song-and-dance numbers.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits (thepirates-movie.com) begins plundering American audiences’ booty this Friday in wide release. That same day Damsels in Distress (sonyclassics.com/damselsindistress/site/) brings Whit Stillman’s femme-driven dry wit to Regal Cinemas South Beach.