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‘Damsels’ Cope; ‘Hunter’ Misfires; ‘Reunion’ Stumbles: Movies

Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody perform in
Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody perform in "Damsels in Distress." The film, from Sony Pictures Classics, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Photographer: Sabrina Lantos/Sony Pictures Classics via Bloomberg

April 7 (Bloomberg) -- “You probably think we’re frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds,” says one such creature in “Damsels in Distress,” Whit Stillman’s whimsical paean to youthful dreamers. “You’re probably right.”

Well, not empty-headed.

The film’s erudite young women navigating the sub-Ivy campus of a fictional East Coast college are brimming with ideas and brainy theories. Tap-dancing, they’re certain, prevents suicide, and the perfect-smelling soap could change the world.

Stillman’s trio of arch 1990s comedies (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona,” “The Last Days of Disco”) celebrated a kind of alternate universe populated by preternaturally witty, angst-filled preppies. In his welcome return to moviemaking, he doesn’t stray far from that rarified terrain. Only now he’s letting women do most of the talking.

Greta Gerwig gives a breakthrough performance as Violet Wister, the self-ordained (and self-invented) top girl of a cliquish campus threesome. Adam Brody (“The O.C.”) is her equally verbose love interest.

Neanderthals

Pretty, stylishly prissy and opinionated if not always self-assured, Violet’s crew takes transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under its wing, mentoring the newcomer on how to survive the school’s “atmosphere of male barbarism.”

Writer/director Stillman has no interest in presenting an over-educated “Mean Girls,” though. His damsels are full of heart, however easily broken. Though they gag, literally, when a group of loud, sweaty athletes rolls by, Violet and her pals (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore) are the first to defend lunkhead frat boys when the guys’ house is shut down.

Stillman’s quirks too often totter into twee territory -- there’s a full-blown musical number at the end -- and he zigzags along a very thin line between absurdity and idiocy. One of the girl’s boyfriends doesn’t know the names of colors because his demanding parents had him skip a year of nursery school.

“We’re all flawed,” Violet deadpans after Lily chastises her for something or other. “Must that render us mute to the flaws of others?” Certainly not, when it’s done with panache.

“Damsels in Distress,” from Sony Pictures Classics, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *** (Evans)

‘The Hunter’

A note in the credits of “The Hunter” informs us that “traps and snares are illegal in Tasmania.”

That’s nice. You wouldn’t know it from the way the camera caresses a steel trap, though. “The Hunter” is a movie for nature lovers who enjoy seeing animals trapped, pieced and shot.

The story involves a professional hunter, Martin (Willem Dafoe), who’s employed by an evil corporation -- the only kind in movies -- to bring back a Tasmanian tiger.

The last specimen of this stripe-backed, jackal-like creature is thought to have died in captivity in 1936. But like the spotted owl, it keeps getting sighted. (Some years ago, Ted Turner offered $100,000 to anybody who could prove one was alive.)

Dafoe’s Martin is a sensitive hunter: he shoots, and then he weeps over his prey. He is such a suffering actor that he looks ready to cry before he spots the animal -- Dafoe seems to be in anguish when he’s taking a warm bath.

Tiger Secrets

When he’s not out in the wilderness impaling furry things and setting snares, he lodges on its edge with a pretty young widow (Frances O’Connor), her motor mouth daughter and her mute son. The boy, in the way of screenplays, knows the secrets of the tiger and lets Martin in on them, little by little, with his pictures.

More cliches: hippies and brutish, pool-playing loggers.

The movie is most pleasurable during its long stretches without dialogue. The director, Daniel Nettheim, has put a lot of his budget into handsome aerial shots of the Tasmanian bush. Everything about the story rings phony (including the corporation’s reason for wanting to get its paws on the tiger’s DNA, which feels like the product of a last-minute story conference). But the beauty of the wilderness is real.

“The Hunter,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is playing in New York, Washington and Austin, and in other cities over the next month. Rating: *1/2 (Seligman)

‘American Reunion’

Feeling nostalgic for a movie best remembered for its man-on-pie love scene? “American Reunion” is your film.

Mixing the requisite (and rarely funny) sex jokes, nudity (both genders) and a maudlin, self-referential sentimentality for 1999’s hit teen comedy “American Pie,” the latest in a string of sequels and offshoots, brings together the original cast -- and more than a few of the original jokes.

The premise is a high school reunion (an oddly fancy affair for a 13th anniversary), with the expected drunken hijinks and sexual misunderstandings. Jason Biggs, as the former zhlub, gets caught in the kitchen with his pants down again.

“American Reunion,” from Universal Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *1/2 (Evans)


What the Stars Mean:

**** Excellent
*** Good
** Average
* Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writers on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com. Craig Seligman at cseligman@mindspring.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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