Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Oct 1/3: Lars von Trier's ANTICHRIST at VIFF

I approach this one with dread and fascination. DOGVILLE was very tough going, but ended up among my top three favourite films ever, alongside TENDER MERCIES and MAGNOLIA. MANDERLAY was Von Trier's sequel, the second in a proposed trilogy, and a bitter, galling disappointment: the precision, restraint, and artistry were blunted or gone completely, and what remained seemed the exploitative self-indulgence that detractors had seen all along in DOGVILLE. Von Trier then entered a period of clinical depression, and apart from the cheeky screenplay he contributed to the Thomas Vinterberg's DEAR WENDY, we heard nothing from the God-Obsessed Danish Bad Boy.

Until Cannes Festival 2009. And the coming of ANTICHRIST.

By all accounts, a very difficult film. With the same sort of divided response evoked by the director's last two films - one of which I admire wholeheartedly, the other of which I would go so far as to say I detest. Because of what I saw in DOGVILLE, I'm going to risk this one - sometimes this guy serves up Transcendent soul food - but because of MANDERLAY, I'm quite prepared to leave the theatre as occasion demands.

Lars is back. And going to the movies just got exciting again...

(Denmark, 2009, 109 mins, 35mm)
Special Presentation | Thu Oct 1, 9:45pm | Sat Oct 3, 11am

Official Film Website

Lars von Trier. Antichrist. Such is the title card launching the Great Dane's self-acknowledged incursion into the recesses of his warped psychology, a succès de scandal at this year's Cannes and a film destined to resonate for decades to come.

When we first see the protagonists, Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (their names, unspecified--"She" and "He" in the credits), they are engaged in carnal acts more suitable to beasts than humans; paying little attention to their toddler, he plummets out the window. She, quite understandably scarred, plunges into typical von Trierian madness; he, a psychotherapist, takes her case into his own hands. Off they venture into the verdant woods to an isolated cabin for treatment, where she spent much time earlier writing a thesis on witches and misogyny. And then the fun begins.

Much has already been made of von Trier's problems with clinical depression; he makes no secret that Antichrist results from his own failed therapy, and he's sensationally puked it all out there for his viewers to lap up like starved voracious hounds sniffing after fresh blood. And oh, is there fresh blood! Not for the queasy, Antichrist is the closest von Trier has come to pure horror, and in his nightmarish vision of good and evil, the battle of the sexes traces back to the beginning of time and will stretch until the end of days. The forest of Antichrist is no Garden of Eden, and this is not your parents' marriage.

VIFF Program Notes

PS I didn't mention von Trier's previous two films, both nasty, both - for some viewers - transcendent. BREAKING THE WAVES I've not yet seen, believe it or not. Here's a review of DANCER IN THE DARK And of course, there's all the von Trier you could want at good ol' Videomatica.

DANCER IN THE DARK (2000, Denmark, Lars von Trier)

This is a musical, and there's always someone to catch me.

You get the impression Lars is a messed up guy, and that just maybe he's got serious problems with women.

After filming DOGVILLE, Nicole Kidman withdrew from the three film series, citing "schedule conflicts." Uh hun. Bryce Dallas Howard showed up to take over her role in the sequel and couldn't figure out why this strange European man kept throwing water at her. (Opie, didn't you warn her? Maybe you should have rented your daughter that documentary about this guy's work with actors on THE IDIOTS: they didn't call it THE HUMILIATED for nothing). Shooting DANCER IN THE DARK, his relationship with Bjork became so contentious she disappeared from the set for three days, after biting off a piece of his shirt! (Though separating fact from fiction on a Zentropa project is impossible.) Von Trier originally cast himself as the angry man who berates Selma for talking in the movie theatre, but he bowed out of the role when he realized his animosity toward the actress might result in him playing the scene with a bit too much force. Bjork vowed never to make another film. With anyone.

It is possible to see the Danish director's films as nothing but elaborately constructed mechanisms designed to inflict the maximum suffering on the most helpless possible female victims. And while his woman protagonists are inevitably innocent, appealing, even holy victims, they are invariably victims, and that's a troubling fit with his on-set treatment of the actresses who play them.

But that would be reductive. The Danish director may also be a genius: while lots of American critics couldn't get past DOGVILLE's Yankee-baiting, there are many others who believe it is one of the truly great films of the new millenium. Me included. And if you don't think crass and fallen people can make great art, even God-glorifying art, maybe you need to go rent AMADEUS.

The first two-thirds of DANCER IN THE DARK is filled with such dread it's almost unwatchable – apart from its artistic daring, the justly celebrated performance of Bjork in the lead role, and our hope, based on other LvT films, that there may be a redemptive (if agonizing) payoff to it all eventually. The Icelandic pop star plays Selma, a desperately poor European immigrant to a small American factory town who struggles to build a life for herself and her boy. Her childlike innocence is so extreme that we initially wonder if she's simple-minded: she often daydreams around the heavy factory machinery, caught up in in exhilarating fantasies where she imagines herself a character in an American-style musical – all singing, all dancing, all happy endings!

We soon learn that part of what we see as other-worldy-mindedness results from the fact that her eyesight is rapidly deteriorating, due to an hereditary condition. We watch her fall into the blindness her self-sufficient spirit won't allow her to reveal, riding a bicycle to work or walking home along the railway tracks that guide her steps. You see what I mean about dread.

Everything works together to render the poor woman terrifyingly vulnerable, not only to trains and traffic and the heavy factory machinery Selma operates (she cheated on the vision exam), but also to the predatory human nature that may lie behind the apparently helpful facades of people around her; the simple-minded man who obsessively offers her a ride home from work each day, the landlord who takes a fatherly interest in her boy and confides his late-night troubles to Selma alone in her trailer, her over-solicitous director in an amateur production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, even women friends who find themselves troubled or threatened by her self-reliance and influence on their lives.

I hope I'm not revealing too much in saying that the film does offer some transcendence in the face of all this pain: suffice it to say that DANCER is as bleak as it is hopeful, an observation which shouldn't surprise anybody who knows anything about good old Lars. My disappointment is that, once all hell breaks loose (as we know from the opening moments that it must, as all hell is wont to do), the film loses much of its power as plot machineries begin to creak like poorly maintained instruments of torture, and desperately improvising actors push for emotional climaxes that begin to feel contrived, melodramatic, sentimental. I'm not referring to the intentionally melodramatic notes of Selma's fantasy sequences, raising the dead and flinging open prison doors, or the intentional David Lynch-like incursions of soap opera and movie melodrama: it's the bathetic straining for emotional effect in the "real-life" moments that undermines things for me in the film's final reel.

Even when my pendulum-opinion of this love-it/hate-it film swings to the cynical side, I can't forget the audacity of those train-car or courtroom dance sequences, or the truer-than-Guffman skewering of those ultra-amateur SOUND OF MUSIC rehearsals. And as qualmy as I am about the creepy resonance between the director's real and fictional worlds, I cannot help but admire his sometimes floundering attempts at the catharsis of genuine tragedy, his occasionally ham-handed efforts at fashioning statues of self-sacrificing saints from the muck of his own screwed up psyche.


All three films available at Videomatica

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sep 26, 10AM: THE APARTMENT, Fifth Avenue

In May I launched a summer movie-watching project, 34 Films I DO Want To See Before I Die. Now, I didn't see nearly as many films as I have other summers, and as for the project, I'm afraid I bogged down midway through RASHOMON. But of the half-dozen I saw (of the dozen or so I had left to see), I acquired three great favourites: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, SUNSET BOULEVARD, and - chief among them, cock full o' soul food - THE APARTMENT. In fact, the three make a fascinating mid-century triptych about ambition, celebrity and power, toadyism and compromise. And all three are classic "city pictures" - vintage portraits of New York or Los Angeles, with the city a palpable, specific presence. / Well, THE APARTMENT is on the big screen this Saturday morning, with a fascinating talkback, in our favourite cinema, sponsored by our favourite video emporium - Videomatica! "I love the smell of popcorn in the morning!"


Visit Fifth Avenue Cinemas the last Saturday of every month for the most memorable films from Hollywood's Golden Age, followed by a Q&A with film critic Jim Gordon. This is a great opportunity for film students and movie fans to enjoy classic films and learn about the process of how they came to be.

The Next Film: The Apartment - Saturday, September 26th at 10AM

Winner of five 1960 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Apartment is legendary writer/director Billy Wilder at his scathing, satirical best, and one of "the finest comedies Hollywood has turned out" (Newsweek). C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) knows the way to success in business...it's through the door of his apartment! By providing a perfect hideaway for philandering bosses, the ambitious young employee reaps a series of undeserved promotions. But when Bud lends the key to big boss J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), he not only advances his career, but his own love life as well. For Sheldrake's mistress is the lovely Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), elevator girl and angel of Bud's dreams. Convinced that he is the only man for Fran, Bud must make the most important executive decision of his career: lose the girl...or his job.

Tickets are only $7. For more information, please visit festivalcinemas.ca

Co-sponsored by Videomatica

The films that will be presented are:
The Apartment - September 26th
The Graduate - October 31st
The Hustler - November 28th


Want to win free tickets?


WHAT: Tickets to select films at Jim Gordon's Classic Cinema
WHERE: Fifth Avenue Cinemas
WHEN: Various

HOW TO ENTER: Please e-mail contests@videomatica.ca include the following information.

Your Name
Your Phone Number
Your E-mail Address
"Jim Gordon's Classic Cinema" in the subject line

Contest closes on Wednesday, September 23rd at 1PM. Eligible winners will be contacted by e-mail

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ebert: Indie Distribution Panic Meter "Stands at Yellow, Rising Toward Orange"

In the wake of TIFF, Roger Ebert sounds the alarm about distribution for independent film - bad news for CREATION, for example - and points us to POD.

First book publishing, then live theatre, now independent film. Next... Armageddon.

(Article at Filmwell. Thanks, Jason.)

(Also note Chattaway's comment: CREATION does have distribution in Canada! Just not south of 49. Smile.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Seraphine (updated)

For those of you who don't see the comments when you view the blog, N.W. Douglas brought the unhappy news that SERAPHINE has been and gone: it played the Ridge for a few nights this summer. Alas. But Peter Chattaway brings the happier news that it's at Videomatica. Of course. I hadn't realized the film had been out long enough to be on DVD, but of course since it has been, Videomatica's got it! Now top of my queue: Overstreet's wish is my command. (Even a visit to my local suburban movie mart yielded rental copy. So, like the Chicken Man, Seraphine appears to be everywhere.)

Oh, and Ken Morefield has a typically thoughtful, spoiler-free piece at 1More Film Blog. Posted in April. Man, am I behind the times! Must have had other things on my mind in April.

Now back to the original post...

Jeffrey Overstreet is recommending this one. With. Periods. After. Every. Word. So either his keyboard is on the blink, or he really likes it. Let's keep our eyes open and let one another know when it arrives in Vancouver, shall we? The Official Site lists showings through November, none of them north of the 49th parallel, so... Eyes peeled, soul foodies!

"Séraphine is the story of Séraphine Louis aka Séraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau), a simple and profoundly devout housekeeper who in 1905 at age 41, self-taught and with the instigation of her guardian angel began painting brilliantly colorful canvases. In 1912 Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German art critic and collector - he was one of the first collectors of Picasso and champion of naïve primitive painter Le Douanier Rousseau - discovered her paintings while she worked for him as a maid in his house in Senlis outside Paris. A moving and unexpected relationship develops between the avant-garde art dealer and the visionary cleaning lady leading to Séraphine’s work being grouped with other naïve painters – the so-called “Sacred Heart Painters” - with acclaimed shows in France, elsewhere in Europe and eventually at New York’s MOMA . Martin Provost’s poignant portrait of this now largely forgotten painter is a testament to the mysteries of creativity and the resilience of one woman’s spirit."
Apple Movies. There's also a trailer there.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998, USA, Whit Stillman)
I'm going to turn over a new leaf in Spain. I'm going to turn over several new leaves. You know that Shakespearean admonition, "To thine own self be true"? It's premised on the idea that "thine own self" is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if "thine own self" is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better in that case not to be true to thine own self? See? That's my situation.

Indeed, that's the situation of all the characters in this closing chapter of Whit Stillman's NYC WASP triptych (acronyms cluster around these films like debs around a punchbowl). Of course, none of them know it at the outset: when first we meet them, they're out for a disco night on the town, flushed with youth, good looks and the high spirits that come from gaining admission to New York's most exclusive dance club. They're on top of the world, neither sadder nor wiser than their younger METROPOLITAN counterparts – but they will be by the end of the movie.

The tagline for the first film of the cycle was so apt, you'd think it was penned by the writer-director himself: "Doomed. Bourgeois. In love." – a phrase later appropriated by Mark C. Henrie for the title of his very fine anthology of essays on "the peculiar comic genius" of Whit Stillman, whose work is there described as "class-conscious, theory-laden, nostalgically romantic, and deflatingly ironic." A tone of nostalgia and deflation permeates this autumnal final installment in the series, a sharp contrast to the sunny, summery comedy of BARCELONA, its immediate predecessor. Charlie spoke in the first film of the impending doom that awaited his entire class. Prophetically enough, as it turns out: as the trilogy draws to its close, it's reckoning time. Time to come to terms. With sin and consequence, with weakness and mortality. And, perhaps, with redemption.

Each chapter in Stillman's magnum opus concerns a different set of characters, but they are essentially alike. (In a very satisfying touch, several faces from the first two films show up at the disco: Audrey Rouget, now something of a legend in the publishing business, is deep in conversation with Charlie, Fred and Sally – nice to see the SFRP at least somewhat intact – and when Ted Boynton enthuses about his new job in Spain, it's a kick to realize how much we already know about the "future" trajectory of his relationship with his date, whom he awkwardly introduces as "Betty." Our disappointment at not seeing Taylor Nichols in a central role is at least mitigated by the fact that he gets not one but two cameos.) The Audrey-ish Alice (Chloe Sevigny) works in an entry-level publishing job with her stunning soon-to-be-roommate Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale). Around them, a cluster of attractively Young, presumed-to-be Upwardly-mobile Professional men: Jimmy Steinway, in advertising; Josh Neff, an Assistant D.A.; Des McGrath, majordomo at the club (played by Chris Eigeman, a veteran of both prior Stillman campaigns); and "Departmental Dan" from the publishing house, who may be an Ivy League grad, but whose politics and social manner mark him as being a little less haut than his fellow bourgeois.

As suggested by the film's wryly apocalyptic title, the heyday of disco is beginning to wane, along with the youthful optimism of the characters. The bottom rungs of the professional working ladder are tougher than freshman year at college and, far more important to this financially independent crowd, the rituals of romance have changed from the exhilarating game of dating to the high-stakes business of mating – a risky business indeed in the promiscuous early eighties.

Religion, however ironically disguised, makes its presence felt early in each of the two previous films, but for much of THE LAST DAYS the only cathedral is the dance club, the only faith a misplaced allegiance to "the disco movement." That absence, combined with the realistically rendered downward spiral of Alice's search for love, lends the story a slowly accumulating gravitas that has much to do with moral consequence and more to do with spiritual emptiness: isolation surrounded by copulation, loneliness in the middle of a partying crowd. More often than in any of Stillman's other films, the irony falls away for entire scenes: he's playing for keeps. This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around.

When grace comes, it comes unexpectedly (as grace is wont to do), from damage and weakness. The ragged words tumble desperately over each other, tuneless and unmusical, manic, apologetic, embarssing, and we don't know just how to take them – as evidence of mental instability, or a very present refuge in a time of trouble.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

And there's more hymn-singing to come! From a source so unlikely as to defy not only expectation but explanation. Apparently the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. The high and mighty are brought low and helpless, characters move from control to abandonment, and it just may be Divine Providence they end up abandoning themselves to, whether they realize it or not. As we learn along with Alice "to appreciate the virtue in what others find defective" (Mary P. Nichols) – a bogus spiritual memoir, a loyal Scotty-dog, a damaged friend and the universally despised dance music that is his glory – we sense that, while the reign of disco must come to an end, another Kingdom may well be at hand.

METROPOLITAN opened the Stillman saga with a hymn that quickly gave way to a dance tune. So THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO bookends the set with The O'Jays' "Love Train," which surrenders the dance floor to John Newton's "Amazing Grace." Human love, divine grace – and everybody up dancing, not just the ones well-dressed or gorgeous enough to get past the gatekeepers at Studio 54. Amazing indeed.

"Doomed Bourgeois In Love" dubs Stillman's work "a major achievement of Christian humanism in our time." You may feel that's overstating the spiritual case, but the more one considers the puzzling place of religion in Whit Stillman's films, the more plausible that statement seems. If, like me, you find yourself intrigued by the question of the film maker's own relation to the faith that keeps asserting itself in his autobiographically-informed creations, your curiosity will likely never find a direct answer. Like so many of his characters, Stillman is reticent about these matters. Perhaps the closest we'll come to a response is the suspicion that Josh's last word in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is, in effect, that of the filmmaker's: "Most of what I said, I believe."

* * *

Terrific that the new Criterion release renews interest in this quietly substantial film and its predecessors, disappointing that the extras are weak. ("Nice movie, pity about the Supplements...") Trailer, Featurette (a slightly extended trailer), some decent deleted scenes, audio excerpt from the intriguing novel treatment, and a commentary track with Stillman, Eigeman and Sevigny that's pretty run-of-the-mill: not much about the film itself, just the usual boring backstage talk about challenges with the shoot and how talented people are. Stillman comes off as a warm, thoughtful man - no surprise there - but nobody does much to enhance our appreciation of the film itself. They mostly just chat while the movie runs in the background.

A couple nuggets:
"The composer, Mark Swazo, came in with the idea of having some Jamaican music. He introduced me to it, and it's a fatal attraction because I became obsessed with it. After Disco I started thinking on and on about early sixties Jamaican music. I went down to jamaica. Down there it's the church scene, so I could go to churches and feel safe and be with people. I love the churches down there, and the Christians and their community, and started thinking about a story there. Of course if they're Christians and really believers, they're thinking about angels and demons, and so there are angels and demons in that story. It turns out I picked about the hardest film to get financed in the world. But I hope one day to do that."

"Stanley Kubrick talked about (these) movies all the time. He adored Barcelona, he's very interested in John Thomas's photography, and he said about it that this is a new kind of cinema, this is dialogue advancing story in an interesting way. He had called up Thomas Gibson who had an important but not big part in Barcelona, and Thomas was sort of surprised to get cast in a Stanley Kubrick film without any audition or anything. Stanley Kubrick had just liked him in Barcelona and called him up and got him to do it. I met Nicole Kidman later at the premiere of Eyes Wide Shut and she said, yeah, it's true, Stanley would talk about Barcelona all the time. He said it's different kind of dialogue, it's dialogue advancing story. So that's our apology. We get beaten over the head by a lot of people saying there's too much talk, and maybe there is. But at least a great filmmaker had another version."

Available at Videomatica

David Denby on Meryl Streep

From the New Yorker review of JULIE AND JULIA. "The movie is memorable, of course, for Streep’s performance. Like a tall ship at full sail, she leans, tilts, and billows. Odd explosions of air—whoops, exclamations—come hurtling through the passageways. She runs out of breath, and then settles, mysteriously, like an old Bible that italicizes ordinary words, on a single syllable."

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Jack Rabbit Slim (Tarantino, 20??)

September 7, 2009 | The Onion | Issue 45-37

MADRID—While attending a European press junket Monday for his film Inglourious Basterds, director Quentin Tarantino announced that his next project, Jack Rabbit Slim, will go into production this fall, and will be an homage to his favorite director and screenwriter of all time: Quentin Tarantino.
"I've been a Tarantino fan for as long as I can remember," said Tarantino, who repeatedly referred to his hero as "The Master." "Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown—those movies were basically my film school. I mean, the ability to take a genre or a subgenre, embrace it to its core, and then blow it up and make it your own is something that has to be admired."

"We're talking about the quintessential writer-director of our time," Tarantino added.

A self-described "Tarantino geek," Tarantino said Jack Rabbit Slim was conceived as a tribute to his idol, and is deeply influenced by Tarantino's blaxsploitation movies of the late 1990s, Tarantino's classic multi-volume kung fu pictures, and the grindhouse films of the late 2000s that Tarantino made famous.

Tarantino has already cast the once-popular actor Eric Roberts to play Slim, in a role director believes will resurrect Roberts' career.

The film will reportedly feature elements and techniques lifted directly from Tarantino's past works, including numerous point-of-view shots from car trunks, and references to Tarantino's favorite cult films, My Best Friend's Birthday and From Dusk Till Dawn.

In one sequence Tarantino called "distinctly Tarantino-esque," Slim delivers an unexpectedly poetic monologue on cheeseburgers while dancing to an Ennio Morricone instrumental with a drug-addled Uma Thurman. And in the film's stunning climax, Slim remembers his training with a martial arts expert in China and then exacts revenge on the film's antagonists: a Nazi colonel, a Hollywood stuntman, and a Los Angeles syndicate of 88 yakuza warriors.

As an homage to Tarantino, Tarantino said he also plans to give the famed director a minor role in the film.

"If nothing else, I hope Jack Rabbit Slim makes moviegoers want to go back and explore the complete filmography of this great, great American artist," Tarantino said. "I really can't think of another living director who has made as large a contribution to the evolution of world cinema, and I feel it is my duty as a filmmaker to remind people of that."

Added Tarantino, "God, I love Quentin Tarantino."

The filmmaker, who became more and more excited when talking about the films of Quentin Tarantino, admitted that he has an autographed Reservoir Dogs poster signed by the director hanging in his living room. He also bragged about owning the syringe that John Travolta used to give Uma Thurman an adrenaline shot in Pulp Fiction.

"The actual one," Tarantino stressed.

Tarantino went on to say he was pleased to see that, almost 20 years into his career, director Quentin Tarantino was still going strong with his latest film, Inglourious Basterds, which Tarantino felt was one of the legendary filmmaker's "very best."

"If Jack Rabbit Slim is even a third as good as Basterds, I might just make a movie so good that Tarantino himself will give it a standing ovation," Tarantino said. "You know what, I bet he will."

Thursday, September 03, 2009


BARCELONA (1994, USA, Whit Stillman)
What is this? Some strange Glenn Miller-based religious ceremony?
No. Presbyterian.

Whit Stillman's wonderful trilogy of serious comedies about rich kids in love might almost be dubbed "The Discrete Charm of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie." The second, a story of not-so-much-ugly-as-absurd-but-still-rather-charming Americans abroad, is the lightest of the three, the characters' upper-class foibles extended to the point of likable ridiculousness (to borrow Donald Lyon's apt description). It is probably also the most spiritually explicit – in Stillman's characteristic, delightfully confounding way.

Here his whole tone is sunnier and lighter hearted, as befits the Mediterranean locale: these kids are having fun, earnest and self-preoccupied though they may be. Stillman's humor is at its most direct and whimsical, turning on endless (and endlessly inventive) misperceptions and "lost in cultural translation" moments. If the stakes are higher in this story of twenty-something Americans abroad – in fact, they are truly life-and-death, with a prolonged hospital vigil and at least one funeral – somehow the tone remains less sombre throughout. And while we are dealing with far more serious matters – the end of the Cold War rather than the last days of the debutantes or the decline of disco –romance and comedy carry the day. The last act of the original screenplay extended an anti-American terrorist subplot in a way that risked dominating the film, rendering it far messier, more explicitly political, and therefore distinctly less Stillmanesque. The film version edits out that "bigger" story in the home stretch, wisely narrowing its focus to character: the political points have been made, we want to get to the wedding for God's sake! Multiple weddings, as it turns out, with plenty of surprises: heck, it's practically Shakespearean.

If Audrey was the still centre of the social whirl that was METROPOLITAN, Charlie and Nick made it spin, and you have to think Stillman penned this follow-up as a showcase for actors Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman. Here they play cousins Ted and Fred Boynton (you can sense the broader humour even in the names), but it's mostly only the names that have been changed: these innocents abroad are pretty much yuppie extensions of their preppy forebears.

Both are sales reps of a sort. Ted represents the ultra-Yankee IHSMOCO – The Illinois High-Speed Motor Corporation – a devout apostle of Saints Benjamin, Ralph Waldo and Dale, while his cousin takes a decidedly more casual approach to his role as "sort of an advance man" for the U.S. Navy; "The last fleet visit was a disaster, so they thought it was a good idea to get someone in early to smooth things out and make sure nothing goes wrong." Of course, this being a comedy, the job falls to the utterly tactless Fred, who is oblivious to the fact that he is grossly unsuited to such a potentially (and literally) explosive diplomatic mission. Of course, this being a Stillman comedy, the implicit comment on a military leadership that would choose so blunt an instrument for so delicate an operation is left unstated – only to be quietly subverted in due time. One might almost say the film ends up a remarkably subtle study of the glories of good old fashioned Yankee bluntness.

In fact Eigeman's character differs significantly from his METROPOLITAN antecedent: if Fred puts the boor back in bourgeois, Nick was in fact the sophisticate of his circle, the keeper of its morals and traditions, however poorly he proved able to fulfill those standards. Prone to speak the unspeakable, he was more gadfly than goofball: to his circle, Nick's behaviour could appear unconsciounable, but he was in fact its conscience. Ted is more or less socially unconscious, and pretty much lacks any conscience at all apart from his reflexive pro-Americanism. Stillman's great accomplishment is that we love him for it.

It is the Nichols character who follows the most directly from the prior film. In his opening speech, METROPOLITAN's Charlie is pegged as a compulsive theorizer with a religious bent, his certainty of God's existence predicated on the flow of chatter that plays constantly in his head and the conviction that Someone must be listening. In the latter film, that Someone is (at least in part) the audience: Ted's relentless intellectualizing spills out into voice-over, and we are made privy to a curious sort of spiritual awakening. The all-too-decent Charlie hoped someday to regain his innate childhood "belief in a supreme being" by "a conscious act of faith": in the character of Ted, we have the privilege of seeing that process unfold.

The film is packed with memorable moments. An evasive Ted lies about his true reasons for staying home one evening, clandestine "reading material" hidden behind a copy of The Economist – leading to a comic payoff as touching as it is absurd. There is an embarassment of feminine riches (and you'd better pay close attention: the gorgeous dark-haired princess is Marta, Aurora is her maybe-plain-maybe-beautiful friend who gets named most often but shows up least, Montserrat is the cosi-perfecto blonde who shows up at the Hampton concert, Greta the "War And Peace" reader): out of this confusing chaos of attractive, sexually active Spanish girls emerges one who sketches angels – but not professionally – and knows a few Catholic prayers: she's cosi-religious. And a perfectly obvious miracle is wrought before our very eyes, obscured by playful editing and subverted by clever writing, our attention rodeo-clown distracted by Fred's definitive declaration of that Stillman trademark phrase, "Oh give me a break!"

Writing about METROPOLITAN, Armond White comments that Stillman's singular interest in character "reveals each one's moral quest. The effort to behave decently, even by the most eccentric (self-serving) standards, gives Stillman's upperclass stories a surprising kick and a fine grain." It is marvelous to see these moral quests extend beyond the confines of a single movie, as a handful of familiar characters in fascinating variations are stripped of superficial childhood securities to make their slow, stumbling journeys toward grace.


The Criterion DVD of BARCELONA is available at Videomatica, as is the brand new Criterion DVD of THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.