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Capsule reviews of films playing in Charlotte


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BRIDESHEAD REVISITED Think of this new film version as instant coffee: If you don't have time to savor the 300-plus pages of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel or all 11 hours of the 1981 British miniseries, then a quick gulp of this 135-minute adaptation might suffice. Roughly set between the two world wars, the story finds middle-class Brit Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) getting involved with the members of the aristocratic Flyte family. At college, he's befriended by the rowdy dandy Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), who takes him to his family's palatial estate, Brideshead. There, Charles meets Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and soon he realizes that he's more comfortable with hetero- rather than homosexual love. Sebastian is heartbroken, while the siblings' control-freak mother, the devoutly Catholic Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), doesn't consider Charles a proper suitor for her daughter, given the fact that he's an atheist. Even those not familiar with Waugh's book or the TV show will get the feeling as they watch this movie that something's missing. Forget about changes from the original text: On its own terms, this often feels rushed and choppy, with relationships unsatisfactorily turning on a dime and director Julian Jarrold failing to provide the piece with enough of a Merchant-Ivory luster to hide any narrative deficiencies (Jarrold's Jane Austen yarn, Becoming Jane, was similarly agreeable yet equally uninspired). But the meat-and-potatoes portion of Waugh's work – the role of religion in a person's life – remains intact, leading to weighty conflicts rarely seen in modern movies. This focus alone makes the material worth revisiting. **1/2

THE DARK KNIGHT Given the fact that Christopher Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins ranks as one of the best superhero flicks ever made, then where does that put this sequel that manages to be even more phenomenal than its predecessor? Certainly, it places it somewhere at the head of the class, and there's a nice symmetry to its release date: After all, it was 30 years ago that the Christopher Reeve version of Superman – still the greatest of all comic book adaptations – was released, and now we have its equal on the other side of the aisle, a superhero saga that's as dark and deep as its forefather was cheery and colorful. In fact, this might be the first superhero movie that exudes a palpable sense of dread and menace that tugs at our nerves in a way that both disturbs and delights us. Even in superior entertainment like Spider-Man and Iron Man, there's a feeling that it's all make-believe, but The Dark Knight offers no such safety net – it wears its danger on its sleeve. In this outing, Batman (Christian Bale) has done a fine job of tightening the reins around the mob bosses who have long controlled Gotham City, and he's soon aided in his efforts by idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). But their combined attempts to corral the city's crooks are hampered by the presence of a murderous psychopath known as The Joker (Heath Ledger). Eckhart stands out in what proves to be the picture's most fully realized characterization, though we all know who's the MVP of this particular show: The late Ledger is simply mesmerizing as this whirling dervish of cackling, lip-smacking, cheek-sucking sin. ****

HANCOCK The idea behind Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" can be applied to this sci-fi outing that, somewhat surprisingly, ends up taking the path "less traveled by." Yet equally surprising is the fact that this enjoyable film would have been even better had it played out as expected. The premise is irresistible: Hancock (Will Smith) is an alcoholic, antisocial superhero whose crimefighting exploits usually end up causing millions of dollars in damage to the city of Los Angeles. The residents have had enough of him, and the police even have a warrant out for his arrest. Hancock couldn't care less until PR guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), despite protests from his wife (Charlize Theron), decides he's going to help Hancock overhaul his public image by transforming him from a menace to society into a hero worthy of respect. The first half sprints with this plotline, resulting in a movie that's consistently funny and inventive – even the typically heavy-handed direction by Peter Berg (The Kingdom) can't dilute the fun. But without warning, scripters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan orchestrate a major plot pirouette, one that dramatically changes the relationships between the characters and allows a sharp satire to mutate into (in no order) a melodrama, a romance, a tragedy, and a myth-building muddle. No movie should survive such a clumsy shift, and yet this manages to get back on its feet, thanks in no small part to the conviction that Smith and Theron bring to their roles. Audience members willing to hop aboard this emotional roller coaster ride will respond to the resultant pathos far better than viewers wondering why the laughs suddenly went MIA. **1/2


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