Written, produced, and directed by Whit Stillman.

Well, I've had a run of great movies lately, and I've finally gotten a chance to write about them!  Something I seem to touch on regularly is how many wonderful films there are out there on the shelves, in the stacks, the depths of the internet, or wherever it is you look for films.  It is always such an incredible joy to be reminded that there is basically an endless supply of films out there that one has never heard of, and further, among those, there are bound to be numerous treasures waiting to be (re)discovered!  Being a sucker for some slick packaging and presentation, the Criterion Collection is a place I return to, and it is also a fantastic place for anyone interested in film to start looking around.  Their website is a treasure trove of information that can lead to discoveries of all sorts of genres, filmmakers, and foreign film industries in which lie many of the great films of the world.  Case in point, I came across one of America's (largely uncelebrated) great filmmakers, Whit Stillman. The writer-directer is also responsible for METROPOLITAN (which I have seen) and BARCELONA (which I haven't).  The former earned him a nomination for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

While METROPOLITAN focused on a young man attempting to move up a social level into a more "intellectual" class of white, rich, snobby (and yet slightly endearing) Manhattan college kids, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO follows primarily a young woman Alice (90s It-girl Chloe Sevigny), and her white, upper-middle-class, slightly snobby friends (also kind of endearing), as they live their professional lives in Manhattan, renting apartments they can't afford (at least not without parental support), spending their days working for ad agencies or publishing houses, and their nights frequenting Studio 54-style nightclubs.  And of course, this all takes place -- you guessed it -- during the last days of disco, the very early 1980s.  In many ways a continuation of the characters found in METROPOLITAN (though chronologically this takes place years before that storyline), it discusses many of the themes found in that earlier film.  These young WASPy kids are coming to terms with themselves, and while, maybe not having existential crises, they are grappling with where they fit in the world, what to do with themselves, and what kind of relationships they want to have.  I should add as a disclaimer that, while rich white people may not necessarily be the kind of people who deserve the most sympathy, they are still a demographic which exists, and whose situation deserves an examination once in a while.  And Whit Stillman's writing walks this line smartly.  He never asks us to cry for them, but rather allows each one to exist and develop as they grow and learn about themselves.  Oh, and Stillman isn't afraid to make fools of his characters for our gratification.

Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloe Sevigny), two 1980s yuppie socialites looking for love.

Stillman is a filmmaker who is especially known for his writing, and the dialogue in this film is smart and interesting.  Like many characters spawned in the 1990s (both in the time when the film was made, but also, I suppose, in the time period it is set, the 1980s) they relate to each other through cultural references.  While his characters in METROPOLITAN largely related to each other through passages of literature and classical novels, the people in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO are more media saturated, and a heated conversation and analysis of the meaning of film like LADY AND THE TRAMP can reveal something about each person.  While not hugely recognized by the masses, Stillman's influence can be felt in filmmakers ranging from Wes Anderson, to Quentin Tarantino, to Noah Baumbach.  His films emerged in the incredibly fertile 1990s indie scene, a time when audiences where fascinated by the concept of characters sitting down and having a conversation about movies, music, or social norms.  Today, this kind of writing feels indulgent.  But back in the 1990s it was very fresh. 

Take a look at Whit Stillman's THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.  I really enjoyed it, and it has some great music, some charming characters (and some wonderfully despicable ones -- see Kate Beckinsale's Charlotte), and a great story.  As well, I think the final scene/shot and end credits are one of my new favorites.  I still have "Love Train" in my head.


End scene/credits (slight spoiler -- but if it gets you interested then maybe it's worth it!):


Written and directed by David Mamet.

If you are familiar with Mamet, you know that he is known for his incredible smart and intricate plots, as well as his colourful dialogue, and in HOUSE OF GAMES, his debut feature film, he shines.  I just watched this and it was brilliant!  I'm trying to remember where I heard about it, but I'm glad I put it on my "to-watch" list when I did because this is truly a hidden gem of a film.  It is a sharp and witty neo-noir, steeped in expressive lighting, paranoia, twists and turns, and dynamic characters.  It is a world where it is impossible to know who to trust, and even the protagonist's motives are dubious.

Straight-edged Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse)
The story is that of a successful therapist who has recently hit it big with a best-selling self-help book.  Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) has everything: a successful career, burgeoning fame, money, and respect from her peers, but something seems to be missing in her precise and regulated life.  She is a workaholic, and has become so engrossed in her cases that she has begun to blend her own life with that of her subjects.  A friend suggests she step back and take time to enjoy life, to do something that excites her, now she has accomplished some life goals.  Taking this advice, she follows up a lead and visits a man, Mike (Joe Montegna) who is putting one of her clients under extreme personal stress.   Her patient, a gambling addict, appears to owe Mike twenty-five thousand dollars, and he's threatened to kill him if he can't return it by the next day.  From here Margaret crosses over into the world of the confidence man.  She becomes obsessed with learning the motives of a man like Mike, and wants to learn more about how a morally ambiguous person like him operates day-to-day.  To Mike, and herself (superficially, it would seem), she claims her curiosity is driven by her profession as "a writer".  But deep down inside they both know that she lusts after some excitement, an edge to her life that can give the rest of it all meaning.

A younger Joe Montegna is a smooth-as-ice cardsharp.

What follows is a twisty and turny mystery story, where it is impossible to say where reality ends and a con begins.  Margaret becomes involved in a confidence scheme, but who is really being fleeced?  Characters come and go, but who knows whether they truly are strangers, or just accomplices in on the take?  It is also a intriguing look into the world of the confidence man.  This is not a new or original topic to be explored in film, but under Mamet's expert scripting, it becomes a fascinating film to watch.  Mamet is primarily known for his theater, but his is an art that translates effectively to film.  At times it feels like it is theater, but it doesn't matter, his dialogue is immersing.  His actors deliver the lines theatrically, and I mean this not as a criticism, but rather an observation.  Like many great films, where the actors speak in ways that people likely wouldn't normally -- for example old film noirs like THE BIG SLEEP or THE MALTESE FALCON -- the dialogue is so liquid and rich, it doesn't matter.

For anyone interested in Mamet, film noir, mysteries, stories about confidence men, or poker, take a look at this film.  Criterion recently put out an excellent DVD of it.  It is a fascinating film, and one that will leave you questioning things up to -- and beyond -- the last frame.