Damsels in Distress. Directed by Whit Stillman. I really enjoyed this movie. Despite not having seen any of Stillman’s three previous films, I was happy to see him introduce this latest effort at a preview screening at the Museum of the Moving Image. (Stillman has had a busy week, but he was proud of the fact that he “was able to find the Museum from two different directions!”) This new comedy stars Greta Gerwig (quite good in Greenberg), Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore as the quartet of college girls out to make a difference in their fellow students’ lives. Gerwig is excellent in a complex role, as are Adam Brody (why doesn’t he play the romantic leading man more often?), Ryan Metcalf, Billy Magnussen and Zach Woods (aka Gabe from “The Office”). The sun-drenched campus, photographed by DOP Doug Emmett, makes the girls’ daily walks all the more lovely. The film is an altogether charming and witty experience; its (literally) sunny disposition and incorporation of music and dance will leave you feeling wonderful. It’s a great little world that these characters live in.
A Dangerous Method. Directed by David Cronenberg. This, my introduction to Cronenberg’s work, was a better film than I was expecting it to be. Its explanations of the development of psychoanalysis really drew me in and the visuals, highlighted by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, are great. Unfortunately, star Michael Fassbender is disappointingly bland as Carl Jung (with the exception of one superbly awkward dinner table moment), but Keira Knightley does a nice job with her more difficult character, Sabina Spielrein. I know Knightley’s performance is considered polarizing, but I fall on the positive side of that argument. After a while I was able to fall into the rhythms of her accent. Viggo Mortensen definitely gives the best performance in the film, sinking his teeth into the role of Sigmund Freud. Vincent Cassel is also good with what little time he has onscreen as sex addict Otto Gross. From what I know of some of Cronenberg’s other films, A Dangerous Method is probably one of his tamer efforts, but it feels like something that only he would or could make.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass. I have a few bones to pick with this film, but my biggest issue is regarding the camera movement. There are enough quick, shaky zoom-ins for five movies. It’s ridiculous. That style of cinematography is apparently a hallmark of the Duplass brothers’ cinema, but I think it’s an awful crutch to rely on. The writing and directing in Jeff also leave a lot to be desired, so the acting is what truly holds the movie together. Jason Segel is, unsurprisingly, a fine actor; anyone who has watched “Freaks & Geeks” knows that he has an innately gentle, sometimes heartbreaking quality about him. Ed Helms, however, does not fare as well. His character’s arrogance is almost too much to handle until near the end. Where Helms’ goofiness works on “The Office,” it simply can’t survive in the muddled climate of Jeff. Judy Greer, who impressed me so much in The Descendants, is wasted in the thankless role of Helms’ wife. Overall, the best part of the film is the subplot dealing with Susan Sarandon, who plays the guys’ mother. Her day spent in the office, including spending time with a workmate played by Rae Dawn Chong, is sweet and certainly the least predictable aspect of the story. If for no other reason, see Jeff, Who Lives at Home for Sarandon. She’s as stunningly beautiful as ever in her mid-60s.
Return. Directed by Liza Johnson. Another “Freaks & Geeks” alum, Linda Cardellini, is the star of this drama set in what feels like the heart of middle America. Unlike many of the young stars of “F&G” – James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Busy Philipps, even John Francis Daley and Martin Starr – Cardellini has not had as great a career in the last few years. After her six-year stint on “ER” ended in 2009, Cardellini has had only a handful of roles, including “Pet Store Employee” in Super (2010) and a guest-star appearance on the CBS show “Person of Interest” last October. In this film, Cardellini shows off her acting ability with incredible nuance. Michael Shannon, another compelling actor, gives an equally profound performance. The film feels amazingly realistic and is reminiscent of another soldier-coming-home drama, The Messenger. Besides Cardellini and Shannon, I really love the performances from Emma Rayne Lyle (as Cardellini and Shannon’s older daughter) and Talia Balsam as a well-meaning friend from Alcoholics Anonymous. On the down side, I’m not a big fan of John Slattery; as was the case with his performance in last year’s thriller The Adjustment Bureau, I found myself unmoved by his acting. (End note: why was Cardellini overlooked at the Independent Spirit Awards? They’re probably the only awards group that would have noticed the film, so the fact that they didn’t bothers me.)
Thor. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Superhero movies are a big deal these days. The franchises make tons of money and the fans, although obviously deeply invested in a cause they care about, are a bit on the rabid side. Thor is one of a spate of recent comic-book adaptations, offering big-league special effects and a fair amount of drama in its storyline. The real question is: why did Branagh direct it? I mean, why him and not someone – anyone – else? As one New York Times Magazine article pointed out, “you know a genre sandbox has become a prison when a guy who’s never been shy about punching up William Shakespeare’s work is afraid to leave fingerprints on Stan Lee’s.” Still, the film is generally entertaining and zips along nicely considering the length (1 hour and 55 minutes). Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman have decent chemistry, Tom Hiddleston is an engaging and somewhat sympathetic villain and, above all else, I was glad to see Stellan Skarsgård (who had a strong year in 2011, also appearing in Melancholia and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in a supporting role as Portman’s mentor. I suppose I’ll need to see Iron Man 2 and Captain America before The Avengers comes out, though.