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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Barry Levinson's THE BAY, Mads Mikkelsen in A ROYAL AFFAIR, and NOBODY WALKS, co-written by Lena Dunham!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Perhaps the most divisive issue among cinema lovers in the last five years has been the value (and sometimes the definition) of found-footage films, which I'm about 50/50 on in terms of liking. I happen to think the best of the bunch include the [REC] films from Spain, Matt Reeves' CLOVERFIELD and the great superhero story CHRONICLE from the beginning of this year. I've also thoroughly enjoyed (to varying degrees) all four of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films, but they haven't really grown or broken from their own formula since their 2007 debut. But certainly in the horror genre, veteran director Barry Levinson's THE BAY is something quite unique, almost unbearably creepy and a highly effective use of a collection of film clips put together as a faux documentary.

That's always been my issue with a lot of found footage works: Who put this footage together exactly? But in THE BAY, this question is actually answered. The film we're actually watching is meant to be the creation of an environmental watchdog group, co-directed by an unseen director on the other side of a Skype-like link and former news station intern Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), who just happened to be in the small Maryland seaside town of Claridge when something truly terrible comes to a head during the community's July 4th celebrations. We see footage of Thompson "today" as she watches and provides commentary for footage taken by her news team, as well as additional video from marine biologists, security footage, cell phone video, home movies and cop car cameras of the day's events.

Residents start getting bubbly blisters on their skin that turns out to be horrific, overgrown parasites that have gotten into their bodies and are eating their way out, leaving them dead within hours of the first symptoms showing up. The local hospital enlists the help of the Center for Disease Control, which has no idea what to do at first. The marine experts are doing tests on leeching going on in the town's surrounding waters, thanks to a thriving poultry industry that dumps tons of chicken shit from animals that have been pumped full of growth hormones and other chemicals. And in the middle of all of this, Thompson is doing a truly terrible job interviewing local officials and residents as their lives come crashing in around them.

Even though we see where things are going and know early on what the danger is, there's still a solid level of gross-out moments and genuine scares to keep THE BAY exciting and fun. Levinson (DINER, THE NATURAL, BUGSY, RAIN MAN, WAG THE DOG) and first-time screenwriter Michael Wallach do a great job of keeping things moving, and there's something about watching this massive loss of human life from the vantage point of those actually going through it that really personalizes the proceedings and makes the loses just a little more tragic. What doesn't work is the over-written character of the town mayor, who is made out to be the overt villain of this story. He is; I'm not disputing this. But once we establish that, we can move on; there's no need for follow up with an uninteresting character.

You might conclude that Levinson is overqualified for a found-footage movie, but he has a sense of how media works, so the fake news footage here actually rings true. But some of the other video sources feel authentic as well (even the isopod that serves as the "monster" in this movie is a real organism). Anyone who labels THE BAY as so much environmental messaging has truly missed the point of this film and has likely never seen the type of activist propaganda that this movie is aping. Much of this footage is said to have been obtained from a WikiLeaks-like website that specializes in obtaining secret government materials, so the resulting "doc" is extremely slanted. The movie doesn't hold back on the gore, the scares or the attempts to make things feel real world. Without question, The Bay is one of the best and ickiest of the recent wave of found-footage films, if only for the most subtle of reasons.

Set in 1700s Denmark, A ROYAL AFFAIR concerns the insane Danish king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, in his first feature film), who marries an English girl, Caroline Mathilda (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, soon to be seen in Anna Karenina), and brings into his inner circle a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (CASINO ROYALE's Mads Mikkelsen, who is actually Danish), whose Enlightened ways threaten to tear the fabric of the ultra-conservative nation... or so the king's enemies would have him believe. It doesn't help matters that the doctor and the queen start an affair that puts both their lives in danger and fuels the jealous rage of an already paranoid king.

Danish director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel, probably best known as the screenwriter of the original film version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, has compiled a film that is both brutal and lush, passionate and dangerous, and a work about sensible ideals that would bridge the gap between the lower and upper classes (something the elite and members of the church leadership certainly don't want) being squashed by those who have the most to lose. A ROYAL AFFAIR makes a few bold assumptions—I'm assuming for dramatic effect more than anything else—that the queen's relationship with the doctor was a primary reason reforms took place in Denmark during the period known as the Struensee era. Still, this fascinating work does a solid job of balancing the political intrigue with the romantic entanglements that seem doomed from the outset.

I'll admit that despite a well-crafted love story, the best scenes are between the king and the doctor, whom the king trusts initially because he comes from humble means and has no designs on gaining power through his position as royal physician. Their first meeting, during which the doctor refuses to declare the king insane, is particularly moving. But the real strength of the relationship in terms of the overall movie is that when the affair with the queen is discovered, it's clear that the king is perhaps most upset that his friend betrayed him.

A ROYAL AFFAIR manages to be both gritty and elegant (the costuming alone should be recognized come awards season), and it generates a great deal of its strength from understated performances from Mikkelsen and Vikander. It's the end of the year so a wave of costume dramas are about to enter our lives. Thankfully, this lovely effort sets the stage nicely.

Having current HBO phenom Lena Dunham's name on anything right now might seem like a safe bet. Her feature debut TINY FURNITURE was a festival darling and her series "Girls" seems to be universally loved (I'm a big fan of the show, not so much of the film) for its frank discussions of 20-somethings' lives and exhaustive identity issues. Both of these projects are also uniquely New York, in my estimation, which is why it's a bit surprising to see Dunham's name on a script a about younger couple living in Southern California (Silver Lake, to be precise) with a couple of kids and a seemingly healthy marriage. Directed and co-written by Ry Russo-Young, the resulting film, NOBODY WALKS, has an entirely different vibe than Dunham's other works, and it's one that neither suits her nor does she seem comfortable in it.

The husband, Peter (John Krasinski from "The Office"), is a sound engineer and designer for films, and he and wife Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt, recently of YOUR SISTER'S SISTER) agree to invite young New York filmmaker/artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby, JUNO and most recently in DREDD) to live in their guest house and work with Peter in his at-home studio during the day. Without really meaning to be, Martine seems to be something of a professional heartbreaker, just going through life having men fall in love with her and then moving on. Her film is an experimental work that will be used as part of an art installation back in New York, and before long Peter is gazing lovingly into her eyes, and the two begin a half-hearted affair.

The biggest issue I had with NOBODY WALKS is how ill-defined these characters are. Yes, I'm aware that a person doesn't have to be unhappy in one relationship to start another one clandestinely, but Martine isn't that interesting, and Julie actually seems like a pretty great lady. Truth be told, most of the characters here are pretty fuzzy, and so many of them outright unlikable that there's no real entry point into the story. If we don't care about these people, why should we care about who ends up with whom? One of the few people we actually do enjoy spending time with is the couple's teen daughter, Kolt (India Ennenga, who plays Melissa Leo's daughter on HBO's "Treme"), who is being sexually annoyed by her Italian tutor. But even that bit of perversity is dealt with in an idiotic way.

NOBODY WALKS seems to filled with people who have lost the ability to talk to each other like adults. Brief appearances by supporting cast members like Jane Levy, Dylan McDermott and Justin Kirk add nothing to the film beyond more names in the credits. And to top it all off, the bits of Martine's film we see make it clear the film is going to be a piece of shit. The only adult who has a semblance of humanity in them is DeWitt's Julie, the put-upon, faithful wife and psychotherapist whose happiness and stability is threatened by a younger model and she defends what's hers rather than simply throw him out and walk away from the situation. But for the most part, these creations rarely act like actual people, and that's ultimately what killed my enthusiasm for this movie.

-- Steve Prokopy
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