Seen at the Movies: The latest Marvel Comics superhero to reach the screen is Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck as a blind New York attorney who by night dons a red suit and hops around the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen, fighting evil with the aid of his other heightened senses. Electra, his martial arts-fighting love interest, is played by Jennifer Garner, of TV’s Alias, and the bad guys are played by Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell, who seems to be having a lot of fun for a change. He’s cast as the shaven-headed Bullseye, who turns benign-seeming objects into weapons with the power of his throw.
Shot by Ericson Core, Daredevil has an effectively dark look and tone, but this is undercut by its irredeemably happy-go-lucky star: Affleck just doesn’t seem capable of projecting a dark side. The movie, written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, also feels like it has a reel missing—the character of Electra, in particular, is undernourished. Even more than in most similar films, it’s easy to lose track of what, exactly, is at stake in all the fighting, except for that comic-book chestnut: the chance for the hero to avenge the death of his father. Costume designer James Acheson, fresh from Spider-Man, comes up with a serviceable red leather suit for the title character, but seems to have more fun with the S&M-slanted duds worn by Farrell and Garner, and with the flashy suits hugging Duncan’s massive frame. Working mainly on the rooftops of downtown LA, production designer Barry Chusid never manages to convince us this is New York, but it doesn’t matter since it’s really Cartoon Land.
Daredevil photos: Zade Rosenthal/20th Century Fox
On the independent front, several new films are opening this week. All the Real Girls, recently at Sundance, is director David Gordon Green’s follow-up to his 2000 debut film George Washington. That movie, which was stunningly shot by Tim Orr, observed the activities of a community of kids in a North Carolina town with such a loving, unemphatic eye that it signaled a fresh new filmmaking voice. All the Real Girls is set in the same strangely lost-in-time environment, and is again stunningly shot by Orr, whose talent for making images pop seems unsurpassed. But this time, Green has come up with a tale of young love that feels forced, banal, and naive. Co-writer Paul Schneider plays the lead, who is supposed to be the town lothario, and a more uncharismatic and introverted ladies’ man you’ve never seen. He finally falls in love with his best friend’s sister, played by Zooey Deschanel: she’s a whimsical type, given to musings like, "Sometimes I like to pretend I’m about to die." The great Patricia Clarkson spends much of her screen time dressed as a clown, performing on children’s sick wards. All the Real Girls stands as a perfect example of sophomore slump.
Laetitia Colombani’s French-language He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not... turns Amélie star Audrey Tautou’s wide-eyed gamine charm on its head. It’s a two-part, she said/he said look at the same events in the life of a relationship, though only one of the partners seems clued into the idea that that’s what it is. Unfortunately, I had time before the screening to read the full page in the production notes devoted to "erotomania," so very little of what followed surprised me. Colombani demonstrates filmmaking flair, and DP Pierre Aim does interesting subjective work with filters and lenses, but The Story of Adèle H. was here before.
Now playing at New York’s Film Forum: Mark Moskowitz’s documentary Stone Reader, which attempts to solve a very special kind of mystery. Obsessed with Dow Mossman’s one-shot 1972 novel The Stones of Summer, which got a rave from The New York Times, sold poorly, and represented its author’s first and last published work, Moskowitz embarks on a quest to track down Mossman. Along the way, he delves into the subjects of writing, reading, and other publishing one-hit wonders like Harper Lee, interviewing literary figures like Carl Brandt, Robert Gottlieb, and the late Leslie Fiedler in the process. The movie, shot on film by Joseph Vandergast and Jeffrey Confer, is overlong but one of a kind.
The Marriage of Maria Braun photo courtesy Wellspring
Also at Film Forum, starting today with The Marriage of Maria Braun, is a six-week retrospective of German bad-boy wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movies. This singular filmmaker made something like four dozen pictures in the 14 years leading up to his death in 1982; with the participation of the distributor Wellspring, Film Forum is showing 20 of them, including Fassbinder’s debut feature Love Is Colder Than Death, as well as The Merchant of Four Seasons, Beware of a Holy Whore, Fox and His Friends, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Effi Briest. Many of the movies in the retrospective are shot by Michael Ballhaus, who was just nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Gangs of New York. For my money, nothing in that film matches the cold shimmery beauty of Maria Braun or the black and white Effi Briest. For a complete schedule, go to the Film Forum website. —John Calhoun
It Just Catches photo: Carol Rosegg
Seen Off Broadway: It Just Catches, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is a jumbled anthology of Ernest Hemingway stories (among them "Cat in the Rain" and "To Have and Have Not"), plus a few scenes from the novel Across the River and into the Trees, with a few Cole Porter tunes tossed in. (Mysteriously, they left out the kitchen sink.) The only thing missing is a workable concept: The scenes have no real dramatic point and, under Edward Hastings’ direction, the actors give busy, superficial performances; only in one sequence, based on "The Light of the World," do we get any sense of something happening underneath the dialogue. Even if you love them both, the combination of Hemingway and Porter is like a gin-and-champagne cocktail—the ingredients don’t blend. Riccardo Hernandez’s setting, an unusually cluttered (for this designer) arrangement of furniture on several levels, depends almost totally on Duane Schuler’s melancholy lighting to give it some visual interest. David C. Woolard’s costumes nicely suggest various locations and eras. Still, at times, the design’s limited color palette results in some fairly dreary stage pictures. Sten Severson’s sound design is okay. This is a strange, misbegotten production. It’s hard to know what the adaptor, Carol Hemingway (Ernest’s daughter-in-law) was thinking. My guess is the Cherry Lane will soon be advertising for a new tenant.
What to do about Michael John LaChiusa? Easily one of the most talented composer/lyricists in musical theatre today, his career has been damaged by a series of flops. His luck isn’t likely to change with Little Fish, now at Second Stage Theatre. Based on short stories by Deborah Eisenberg, this has the feel of one of those New Yorker pieces in which nothing really happens, but which is loaded with sensibility. The premise: Charlotte, (Jennifer Laura Thompson), a short-story writer, decides to quit smoking. That’s pretty much it, as she reviews her relationships with friends and lovers, probes her malaise, searches for her voice, blah, blah, blah. There’s a tiny plot development involving a friend’s illness, an event that shocks Charlotte into embracing life, but, overall, Little Fish is dramatic small fry. LaChiusa’s music is driving, jazzy, and totally original, and his lyrics—spiky, poetic, insightful—are equally distinctive. But it’s nearly impossible to construct a satisfying play out of such little frissons and tiny insights. Again Riccardo Hernandez makes with the platforms; this time they’re aluminum, with translucent panels behind them. The latter are backlit by colored fluorescents, courtesy of Peggy Eisenhauer. (As Ben Brantley pointed out in his Times review, you could use the set, as is, for a revival of Company). I don’t know about the overall scenery/lighting concept; at times, I thought the look of the fluorescent units was kind of patchy, with far too many individual cues. On the other hand, I saw the show with a lighting designer who was very impressed. Anyway, it’s something different. (Hernandez also pulls off an elaborate swimming pool effect involving an elaborately rigged scenic panel; it’s pretty nifty.) Toni-Leslie James has come up with some wild costumes for Lea DeLaria, who is cast as Charlotte’s scary roommate (those Rasta hairdos are really something). Scott Lehrer’s sound design is first-class, allowing us to catch every word of the lyrics; he also creates a bracing collage of city noises for the opening moments. Graciela Daniele’s direction and choreography are both smoothly professional. But, somebody, please, hook up LaChiusa with a first-class librettist! —David Barbour