Maybe I’ve been overthinking things. Worrying too much about the corrosive effects of superheroes on the cinema and all that. I did 1,500 words on The Dark Knight last week, and I’m sticking to every annoyed one of them. I will add that a friend asked why I didn’t go under the surface and explore the “politics” of the film, and I said it was because they were right there in plain view, 9/11-Iraq window-dressing to make the story “relevant.” But that’s enough on last week’s sensation for now.
Why so serious? It may be the humidity, or the lack of a proper summer vacation. So I’m clearing my mind. Getting a few matters off my cursor. I’m taking you to the movies, then dropping you off, with a few bucks for popcorn and some parting wisdom. If you’re multiplex-bound, consider the generally excellent Wall-E, which, along with Hellboy II, could use a little more love. If indie/arthouse is how you roll, take these capsules, and call me in early August, when we’ll meet again.
Baghead. Day for Night meets The Blair Witch Project, as discontented “mumblecore” filmmakers tired of failure get more than they bargained when they hole up at a summer cabin in the offseason to improvise a horror movie based on one of their deepest fears — a stranger with a bag on his (or her) head, ready for the kill. The notion is more than paper or plastic as a “Baghead” emerges from the woods to stalk the four friends, two of whom are in a collapsible relationship, and the other pair on the verge of hooking up. The whole mumblecore movement may be a generational thing — no-budget productions where amateurish performers stare out of dirty window shades for minutes at a time aren’t my bag. Co-creators Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair) at least have a sense of humor about the whole thing, and start Baghead with a wicked parody of the genre, then segue into the mild titters and jitters of the story. Baghead is no big deal, but as take-it-or-leave-it propositions go it’s more take than leave if you downsize your expectations, and the laughs and screams it aims for more ambitious than the shrugs its ilk generates.
Brideshead Revisited. The lengthy 1981 miniseries filmed Evelyn Waugh’s novel by the page; the film, from director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) and co-writer Andrew Davies (who pens every other Masterpiece adaptation) more by the chapter. Contrary to what you might think if you haven’t been to the library lately, it’s not that huge a book, and like the recent run of Jane Austens onscreen and on TV, it doesn’t compress too badly. Unlike most of those, which looked to have been done on the cheap, Brideshead has been produced with the period lavishness that arthouse regulars swoon over; returning for the redo is its most indispensable player, England’s real-life Castle Howard, as the title edifice. As the lady of the manor, an effectively stiffened Emma Thompson wears Catholicism like a crown of thorns, and lords it over her children and husband Michael Gambon, who has escaped the gloom for a reprobate’s life in Venice. The movie refashions Waugh’s story into more of a love triangle, with the attraction the wasted scion of Brideshead, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw, the phantom Dylan in I’m Not There), has for the interloping Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) foregrounded a tad more explicitly. The purists will balk, but there is more of a charge between them then there is between Ryder and Sebastian’s sister Julia, who is colorlessly played by Hayley Atwell. Dressed to the nines, the film lacks other inspiration. The support beams hold firm, however, and if Waugh’s crabbed outlook on affairs of the heart isn’t a deterrent, this Brideshead may very well be worth revisiting, if this type of picture is your cup of tea.
Lou Reed’s Berlin. The dark knight (there I go again) of the New York music scene dusted off his disputed masterwork from the early Seventies and performed it live at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2006; directing the performance, and the film, is Julian Schnabel, who had his Diving Bell and the Butterfly co-star Emmanuelle Seigner play the doomed Caroline in dreamy video segments concocted by his daughter, Lola. I came into the film cold, not knowing the album (I’m the movie guy, not the music guy, around these parts), and was fairly taken with it, in part due to Schnabel’s evocative staging. Hardcore Reed fans might object to some of the accoutrements (like a children’s choir), which may soften the edge of the anguish; for them, their idol without the frippery will be enough. (He is clad, according to the press notes, “in a blood-red T-shirt the color of clotted blood,” which to my untutored eyes looked, well “maroon,” to me.) But the mesh of downtown artistic sensibilities has its own fascination. Reed, who with age looks like Tyrell, the replicant maker, in Blade Runner, only allows himself the ghost of a smile when Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, performs “Candy Says” in a set that follows the Berlin performance.
Tell No One. Harlan Coben joins the company of crime novelists like Ed McBain, Patricia Highsmith, and Ruth Rendell, who have had their stories successfully filmed abroad. The foreign tongue (French, in this case) smooths over Coben’s contrivances; reading the twists and turns that fly off the screen in the denouement, as you would in the book, is perhaps more plausible than listening to them. Co-writer, co-star, and director Guillaume Canet is clearly infatuated with the verve of American pulp, and responds in kind; the highlight is an exceedingly well-staged and fully coherent foot chase that breaks no laws of logic or gravity, a welcome and near-radical rarity these days. Everyman Francois Cluzet is a pediatrician whose wife (Lady Chatterley star Marina Hands) was killed in an unsolved case, where fingers were discreetly pointed at him; eight years later, she appears to e-mail him, and as he tries to sort out that wrinkle on the sly suspicion gradually moves closer to home. The supporting suspects are a cross-section of Gallic favorites, including Nathalie Baye, Jean Rochefort, Andre Dussollier, Marie-Josee Croze, and Kristin Scott Thomas, a “Chunnel star” like Charlotte Rampling — both have morphed into part-time French actresses.
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