Last Days of Disco (1998)

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Written and directed by Whit Stillman, The Last Days of Disco takes place in the early 1980s during the waning days of disco’s glittery glory days.

The Last Days of Disco focuses on two recent college grads, Alice Kinnon (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale). They now live in Manhattan and work at a publishing house. Classmates at a prestigious east coast college, Alice and Charlotte seem to be friends more out of convenience, not actual affection. If Sex and the City had been around at the time you would call Alice and Charlotte “frenemies.”

After work, Alice and Charlotte spend their nights at Manhattan nightclubs socializing with the upper-crust elite and looking for fun and romance. Alice is quiet, soft spoken and intelligent. Charlotte is outgoing and spirited, but quite conceited. And she never fails to give Alice advice on men and dating. Desperate, Alice takes this advice even though it screws her up.

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Alice and Charlotte strike up a friendship with Des (Chris Eigeman) an employee of one of their favorite clubs. Des is quite the ladies’ man but claims to be gay once a relationship sours. Alice and Charlotte also find romance at the club, often with men who turn out to not be Mr. Right. Charlotte dates a man named Josh (Matt Keeslar) even though he really wants to be with Alice. And Alice has a one night stand with a lawyer named Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), who leaves her with a venereal disease.

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Despite their “frenemy” relationship, Alice and Charlotte decide to move in together. Realizing their parents’ generosity can only go so far, they take in another roommate, Holly (Tara Subkoff). Holly may be Alice and Charlotte’s roommate, but she never quite becomes their friend. Alice and Charlotte often question Holly’s intelligence and choices in men.

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All this closeness proves to be too much for Alice and Charlotte, and they soon part ways after a bitter conflict. Charlotte commiserates with Des, claiming her personality is just too much for mousy girls like Alice. But things look up for Alice once she starts dating Josh.

The Last Days of Disco isn’t so much about action and plot as it is about relationships, feelings and catching a singular moment of time. Remember it was the early 1980s. The glamorous and glittery debauchery of the 1970s was starting to look cheap, tawdry and despondent. Soon AIDS would haunt our sexual consciousness, and before long school children everywhere would claim, “Just say no” when it came to drugs.

Like many other coming of age films and TV shows like Girls, The Last Days of Disco examines the idea of young people “finding themselves.” Characters, who at turns seem so sure of themselves, question their choices in love, careers and friendship. And the social dynamic between Alice and Charlotte is quite familiar to anyone who found themselves hanging out with people they didn’t really like but felt they needed them as some kind of life raft during uncertain times.

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The Last Days of Disco is considered the final chapter of Whit Stillman’s self-proclaimed “Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love-Series,” which also included Metropolitan and Barcelona. All the performances ring true, and Chloe Sevigny is especially affective as the self-effacing Alice.

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Some people might be put off by a movie focusing well-to-do elites, but these are no Kardashians or younger versions of the Real Housewives. Alice and Charlotte’s difficulty in navigating a confusing world ring true whether you grew up with a silver spoon or on a steady diet of cheap mac n’ cheese.

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Coco Before Chanel (2009)

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Before Chanel no. 5 and the interlocking Cs, and before the iconic quilted bag and the classic Chanel suit there was Gabrielle Chanel, an orphan whose unorthodox fashion sense revolutionized the way we dress. And in the French film (with English subtitles) Coco Before Chanel we learn of Coco Chanel’s early years.

Gabrielle Chanel’s life began quite humbly. As the film commences, young Gabrielle Chanel, along with her sister, are left at a Catholic orphanage by their father. Though Gabrielle’s childhood seemed bleak, she did learn how to sew, and the simple austerity of the nun’s habits influences her design aesthetic. Years, later and now played by Audrey Tatou, Gabrielle is working as a seamstress at a dress shop and singing at a cabaret with her sister.

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While singing in the cabaret, Gabrielle meets Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a man of considerable wealth. They strike up a friendship and he bestows her with the nickname, Coco, the name of a song she and her sister often sing. Before long Coco becomes his erstwhile mistress. She thinks his wealth may be beneficial in improving her life. Before long she is living with Balsan at his country estate.

Coco isn’t in love with Balsan, yet she bristles when he calls her his “geisha” and doesn’t appreciate when he tries to keep her hidden in the kitchen when he’s entertaining guests. Coco is not the type of femme to be ignored, and she finally asserts herself and introduces herself to Balsan’s friends.

One of Balsan’s friends is an actress and former lover Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos). Emilienne grows fond of Coco, and is quite intrigued by her odd dress sense. At a time where women wore elaborate dresses and hats, overdone with lace, ribbons, plumes, flowers and other accessories, Coco’s simple, menswear-inspired designs were truly avant garde. But Emilienne grows to love Coco’s look, and begins to support Coco’s fashion endeavors.

At this time Coco also meets and falls in love with one of Balsan’s friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a wealthy English man. Boy adores Coco but he won’t marry her. He is betrothed to another. Not surprisingly, Coco is not happy with this news, and she makes sure Capel provides with enough money to set up her own dress shop. Coco may never share his last name, but she’ll be damned if she gets nothing out of the love affair.

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Throughout the film, we get brief flashes on Coco’s fashion influences. She cuts up Balsan’s ties, suits and shirts to fit her petite figure. She lounges around in men’s pajamas. While at the sea, she notices the fishermen’s striped jerseys, and soon they become part of her look. In another pivotal scene, we see Coco at a dress shop, administering instructions to the shopkeeper on the kind of dress she wants, black, and no corset underneath. Voila, the little black dress, the mainstay of every woman’s wardrobe, is created.

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It is these moments I wish Coco Before Chanel would have focused on. Only rarely do we get to see Coco become the Coco Chanel in scenes where she is draping and cutting of fabric, making hats and finding inspiration for her designs. I do wish the film focused more on the emerging designer, and not the romantic melodramatics among Coco, Balsan and Boy Capel. The romantic melodramatics stunted the film, and made it come across like another costume drama you might find on PBS. This narrative isn’t exactly original, and if Coco Chanel was anything it was original.

Though I’m sure Coco’s personal life was interesting, I wanted it in smaller doses. It was Coco’s ascent as a fashion designer and laser-focused work ethic on creating her clothing and her brand that I wanted to see. We do get a brief glimpse of this at the end when Coco presents one of her collections at her atelier in Paris. But these scenes are all too fleeting. Perhaps what is needed is a sequel, Coco After Chanel. Mais oui?

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Saving Face (2004)

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In writer/director Alice Wu’s inter-generational family comedy Saving Face, Michelle Krusiec plays Wil (short for Wilhelmina), a medical resident without much time for a life let alone romance. The only social life Wil seems to have is at Chinese-American gatherings in Queens where people try to set her up available young Chinese-American men.

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However, Wil has a secret. She’s a lesbian. And at one of these gatherings she meets Vivian (Lynn Chen), another lesbian who is also a dancer. Sparks fly between the two women, and slowly their flirtation turns into a romance. However, Wil isn’t quite ready to come out to her family so the romance has to remain a secret much to Vivian’s chagrin (and it doesn’t help that Vivian’s father is also Wil’s boss at the hospital).

In Saving Face, Wil’s mother (Joan Chen) also has a secret, but it won’t stay a secret for long. She’s in her forties, widowed, living with her parents…and pregnant. And she’s not exactly too forthcoming on the man who fathered her child.

Bringing shame onto the family name, Wil’s mother (known as Ma) is kicked out of her parent’s home. Knowing nowhere to turn, she ends up on Wil’s doorstep, and Wil takes her mother in, wondering how she’s going to keep her romance with Vivian a secret and deal with Ma’s impending late in life motherhood.

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As Ma’s belly grows, Wil learns more about her mother, seeing her more as a flesh and blood woman with her own desires and needs. However, this doesn’t exactly inspire Wil to come clean to her mother, and she tries furtively to keep her relationship with Vivian a secret. To be knocked up out of wedlock is one thing; to be a lesbian is quite another. What will the neighbors think? Actually, it’s one of Wil’s neighbors who tries to get her to face herself and Ma.

But will this happen soon enough? When Vivian announces she’s been offered a chance to dance in Paris, Wil realizes she needs to make a decision. Come clean, and admit her romance with Vivian, or remain closeted and let Vivian go. In other words, save face (yet lose someone she truly cares about).

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And Ma must also make some major decisions. One is opening up about who’s the father of her child, a man that superficially, might not seem suitable. And this decision must be made soon before Ma makes the disastrous mistake of marrying someone she doesn’t love just to give her unborn child a name.

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Saving Face examines how we balance the old world (when Wil is with her grandparents she speaks in Mandarin) with a “modern society” (unplanned pregnancy, homosexuality and careerism). And in like any other family, the families in Saving Face are flawed, yet loving. Saving Face may remind viewers of the sleeper hit My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. And though Saving Face is a bit predictable, its good performances and sweet charm make it worthwhile viewing.

I Watch It So You Don’t Have To: Intern (2000)*

 

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If any industry seems perfect for satire and parody it’s fashion, especially the rarefied world of fashion magazines. Fashion doyennes decide where our hemlines will be this season with the same seriousness as preparing military readiness in the Middle East. Bulimia and anorexia are considered virtues. And Botox is as necessary as air and water. Ugly Betty was a successful television sitcom immersed in the world of fashion, and The Devil Wears Prada was a huge smash, so I had big hopes for the indie movie Intern. Sadly, Intern turned out to be as big of a Glamour fashion don’t as see-through jeans and pretty much every outfit you see on the Kardashians.

Dominique Swain plays Jocelyn Bennett, an intern at the fashion magazine Skirt. Jocelyn is apparently a photographer, though you never once see her take a picture, and she is fan of Skirt’s innovative layouts and photography. Sadly, in the brief moments we get to see Skirt, the actual magazine, you wonder if the layout was done by a third-grader on Power Point back in 1998. Yes, I know this movie was low budget, but you think someone could have tried a bit harder.

When Jocelyn isn’t making copies, faxing, running errands and cleaning up Skirt staffers’ desks, she’s pining away for the magazine’s art director, Paul Rochester (Ben Pullen). Paul is a fashion magazine rarity, a straight man. And he’s also allegedly related to Prince Charles. Paul is very fond of Jocelyn but at the moment he is involved with a bitch-on-heels fashion model named Resin (Leilani Bishop).

As Intern begins we find out a Skirt insider has been selling Skirt’s secrets to rival magazine. Jocelyn figures finding out who this insider is just might make her a hero at the magazine, and she goes about trying to find out which fashionista has betrayed Skirt. This also gives her a chance to get closer to Paul. Of course, mayhem ensues, blah, blah, blah. But by the time the movie reaches its dénouement, we really aren’t that invested.

I should have known this movie was going to be crap when it began with a cringe-worthy musical number. Most of the observances of the fashion industry, like when an editor makes herself vomit after finding out the milk in her coffee is 2%, not skim, fall flat. The dialogue is clunky, and when Paul tells Jocelyn that she has the whole world inside of her I audibly groaned. A majority of the performances are wooden; only Kathy Griffin as Cornelia managed to get a laugh out of me.

A lot of blame also belongs on Swain whose acting in Intern is amateurish. At times she rushes through her lines and she has no comedic skills. Her Jocelyn is supposed to be the heroine but in the end you don’t care about her and her future at Skirt. Plus, if Jocelyn is supposed to be so much in fashion why does she dress like such a frump?

A lot of fashion designers and other fashion insiders make cameos playing themselves, and I have to admit that I did have fun naming them. “Hey, there’s Diane von Furstenberg!” “Hey, is that Simon Doonan?” And Vogue editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley seems to have the ability to poke fun at himself.

Sadly, those cameos can’t make up for a dimwitted film. Intern was written by Caroline Doyle and Jill Kopelman, two women who claimed to have worked at fashion magazines. Buddhist monks could have written a better script. If you want to watch the fashion magazine industry skewered to great effect, you are better off staying home and binge watching Ugly Betty.

*Not to be confused with the 2015 movie The Intern starring Ann Hathaway and Robert DeNiro.

In a Day (2006)

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In the charming and low-key British romantic comedy In a Day, Lorraine Pilkington plays Ashley. By day Ashley works at a London sandwich shop. She’s a fledgling pianist and singer, and the sandwich shop gig is supposed to just fill in the gaps as she gets the gigs that will lead to musical success.

One morning, while waiting for a bus, Ashley is verbally accosted by another commuter. The conversation starts innocently enough. The man asks her about the book she is reading, a book on jazz. Then he asks her about going back to her place for a quick shag. Not interested in having a booty call with a complete stranger, Ashley declines his advances. This does not sit well with the stranger and he begins to harass Ashley calling her horrible names, and finishing his rant by throwing his cup of coffee on her.

Moments later, Ashley is approached by an appealing young man named Michael (Finlay Robertson). He’s a frequent customer at the sandwich shop. To make her feel better about being assaulted, Michael offers to take Ashley out to lunch. Thinking her day can’t get any worse, Ashley decides to take Michael up on his offer.

Michael and Ashley end up at a pricey restaurant. Ashley enjoys the meal and realizes she also enjoys Michael’s company. Their “date” does not end once Michael picks up the check. He still wants to treat Ashley further so he buys her a nice outfit from a pricey boutique, and he also treats her to a new haircut at an upscale salon.

Ashley is touched by Michael’s kindness and generosity, but can’t help but wonder why a near stranger would be so nice to her. And when Michael later tells her that he’s actually pampering her on behalf of someone’s request, Ashley is further confused.

Lunch, new clothes, and a haircut aren’t Ashley and Michael’s only adventures. They visit to Michael’s sister’s home to wish her a happy birthday. Unfortunately, Michael’s sister is a sourpuss who can’t appreciate anything, and you can feel Michael and Ashley’s discomfort during the entire conversation.

But later things brighten up when Ashley mentions a musician friend of hers in need of a new saxophone. Michael agrees to buy Ashley’s friend the new saxophone, and the friend is overwhelmed by their generosity. This visit also gives a chance for Ashley to show off her skills and a pianist and singer, and Michael is truly impressed.

Ashley is still baffled by this mystery man and why he’s being so nice. And when Michael finally owns up to why she deserved to be pampered, Ashley is shocked and doesn’t quite know what to make of Michael’s confession, which brings up bad memories of her childhood. She’s upset, but will she be willing to let go of the past? At the end, we get the idea that maybe, just maybe Ashley can.

In a Day (written and directed by newcomer Evan Richards), goes at a leisurely pace but is never boring. Both Pilkington and Robertson are both very appealing in their roles. Rose Keegan nearly steals the show as Finlay’s shrewish sister, and gives great insight on his psyche. If you’re looking for a sweet little film that is a good escape from the real world and all the depressing news but isn’t the usual rom-com you can’t go wrong with In a Day.