By Steve Greene | Criticwire April 4, 2012 at 11:27AM
Fourteen years after "The Last Days of Disco," Whit Stillman has a movie in theaters again. And critics generally like it. With a "B" average from Indiewire's Criticwire Network, "Damsels in Distress" is this week’s Criticwire Pick of the Week.
Although most critics' reactions have been reserved (or presented with confoundment at Stillman’s extended absence from the indie world), they also express some variant of relief at the director’s return. "Damsels" follows three female students in their quest to de-grungify their college campus, all the while saving those around them from the dangers of depression.
Some critics offer cautious praise, such as Neil Young in The Hollywood Reporter. "Stillman proceeds to spin a frothy confection whose flavors are simultaneously tart and sweet," Young writes. "He treads a tricky comic line between exaggeration and caricature, ensuring the film’s many absurdities are generally more delightful than grating." At the Playlist, Kevin Jagernauth extols Stillman’s writing and direction as the film’s "real star." But he also concedes that "the daffy universe the film takes place in requires an act of good will on behalf of the audience that isn't always rewarded." Movies.com’s Monika Bartyzel gives the movie an A- and describes how "the comedy pummels the audience with repeated absurdity that ranges from Stillmanesque toilet humor to an obsession with soap and starting dance trends." If there’s any consensus, it’s that Stillman’s wiles aren’t meant for everyone, but that even lesser Stillman is better than no Stillman at all.
A smattering of other new releases struggled to find widespread approval among Criticwire members. The best of the rest is Nanni Moretti’s "We Have a Pope," which received a B- average. The religious satire tells the story of a psychiatrist who is called in to counsel the reluctant Cardinal Melville, a man hesitant to inherit papal authority. While many critics point out that the film has some redeemable qualities, there’s some disagreement as to what they are. In the Atlantic, Jon Frosch writes that the film has "a knockout finale that makes you wish the rest of the film hit a bit harder." On the other side, CineVue’s Patrick Gamble argues that the film is "a hugely enjoyable experience that's sadly let down by a rather lackluster and uninspiring ending which feels all too contrived and unrealistic a conclusion to the emotional journey Melville undertakes."
Critics are also split on Guy Maddin’s latest feature-length venture, "Keyhole." Typical of Maddin’s offerings, the film defies traditional narrative storytelling, playing as a more experimental piece of work. Some film writers are fine with this, including Kezia Tooby, who writes at Flickfeast, "I was truly hypnotised by 'Keyhole,' which is both thematically and visually fascinating and as soon as I had seen it, the desire to watch it again took hold of me." However, Tooby is quick to add, "This is more of an experience than anything else and if it will hold up on a second viewing is debatable." However, like many critics who helped build the film's C+ grade, James Rocchi was nonplussed. He writes: "Maddin is on the edge, and that perspective gives him visions and insights others never dare to attain, but with the locked and puzzling 'Keyhole,' you get a sense of a filmmaker who's lost sight of how to take his audience along with him."
Along opening this week: Julian Leclerq’s historical hijacking thriller "The Assault," which received a C+ average from Criticwire members.