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toronto film festival

Toronto Film Reviews: Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt, and Butter

From left, Carrie MacLemore, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Greta Gerwig in Damsels in Distress.

Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress
Thirteen years after The Last Days of Disco, Whit Stillman is still obsessed with preppies’ peccadilloes — and, apparently, he still loves to boogie. His zippy new film, more arch than St. Louis’s Gateway to the West, is set in a cartoonish college campus dominated by a Greek system that for some reason uses Roman letters.
Greta Gerwig plays Violet, the ringleader of a crew of do-gooder mean girls who run a suicide-watch center that helps the depressed through the healing power of tap and honky-tonk line dancing. She adopts a gawky sophomore transfer, Lily (played by former America’s Top Model contestant Analeigh Tipton, who has become a go-to gawky teen), and shares with her the secrets to her success: perfume, cute clothes, and charity work (including the act of dating dumb boys in order to improve their lives). “I love clichés and hackneyed phrases,” says Violet, who goes on to mouth Stillman-arch epigrams like: “I don’t think cool people are much less human. Just enough to be cool.”

Stillman is in fine form, depicting this campus as a kind of Ivy League Idiocracy: There’s an “Anal Love” association, talk of the “Decline of Decadence,” and there’s much to like in this new and looser Stillman. But if his films were always overstuffed with riffs and ideas, this one — after his taking time off for over a decade — does feel like too much was pent up. There are too many dance numbers, particularly since Stillman is more comfortable with talking heads than moving bodies: As a director of motion, he’s all left feet. With sharp line readings, Gerwig plays Violet as a stylized and inhuman construct, a farcical creature who inevitably wears out her welcome. In the end, Stillman asks the audience to go along with Violet for a big, broad, over-the-top finale, but it's too late. It's shot poorly, but the larger problem is that, after striking such a snarky, wallflower pose for so long, it’s hard to just ditch all that arch insincerity and get down on the dance floor.

Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt
A better version of Francis Ford Coppola’s loony low-budget, black-and-white (and red) HD-video horror romp might have been shot entirely silent, with Tom Waits’s tongue-in-cheek drunk-poet narration guiding the entire film instead of just the first few minutes. He’s a great fit: The singer has been bullshitting in song for years, stitching together real feelings out of old barroom jingles, Broadway clichés, and cabaret clap-trap. Like Waits, Coppola is slumming through the mock-serious as well, mining the Corman-Syfy catalogue of ghost stories and murder mysteries in search of something real — exactly what that is, however, is never clear. Coppola’s once-upon-a-time begins in a mysterious town full of goth bikers, dead children, and the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe. Val Kilmer plays an alcoholic writer of witch novels with the reputation of a “bargain-basement Stephen King,” who decides to investigate the mass murder of the kids, who are now busy haunting an old hotel. The setup is all costume-party kitsch: Alden Ehrenreich vamps as a Baudelaire-quoting motorcycle king named Flamingo; Ryan Simpkins moons as a damned tween whose braces distend when her teeth transform to vampire fangs; Bruce Dern cocks crazy-eyes as the sheriff; and Val Kilmer is utterly off the leash, wandering, bleary-eyed, through the film’s smoke-machine murk. As a B-movie lark, it’s borderline nonsense, more freak show than roller coaster. And there’s a direct reference to the speedboat-accident death of Coppola’s son, which seems jarringly off-key in such a playfully insincere context. The film is further proof how difficult it is to make a good B-movie.

Butter
At the premiere of Jim Field Smith’s satire, set in the frenzied small-stakes mania of the Iowa State Fair, Harvey Weinstein made a splash by publicly inviting Michele Bachmann to the Iowa premiere of the film. “I would of course be more than happy to fly in the other leading members of the tea-party movement to make an entire day of it,” his statement read. Clearly, the Weinsteins are hoping the film will catch fire among the MSNBC demo, but it’s doubtful. The film, which is literally about a butter-carving competition, is not, in fact, a satire of the tea party at all: Though Jennifer Garner’s Laura Pickler may share an aggressive Bachmann-esque persona and haircut, the film was originally scripted as a satire of the Barack-Hillary race. See, Laura’s husband, Bob (Ty Burrell), is actually the state butter champion — and he’s cheating on her with a skanky stripper (Olivia Wilde). Refusing to relinquish the family dynasty, Laura decides to toss her hat into the ring, and seems poised to win when suddenly a 10-year-old black genius orphan appears out of the blue with a God-given talent for carving and the unfortunate name of Destiny (Yara Shahidi). Ultimately, Butter is more churn than payoff. Does anybody think that Obama’s analog is really a pure-of-heart orphan? Or that Clinton is really a desperate, unstable opportunist? Still, the cast works hard: Jennifer Garner is admirably without ego, and Rob Corddry, Kristen Schaal, and Phyllis Smith are all strong in supporting roles. Most of all, the butter sculptures themselves are often deliriously goofy. (My favorites included “Tyranosaurus Eating Man,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Newt Gingrich on Horseback.”) In the end, though, this is a maudlin, buttered-up, middlebrow mash-up of Little Miss Sunshine and Best in Show that never quite sets.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics