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BAGHEAD

From the title on down, simplicity is the hallmark of this little movie by the Duplass Brothers, among the most notable practitioners of the stripped-down, improvisational style that’s come to be called “mumblecore.” The latter part of “Baghead” is a sort of minimalist horror movie in which the supposedly terrifying villain is nothing more than a guy wearing a brown paper bag on his head. It’s probably the least specific vision of a threat in a scary picture since the witch you didn’t see in the Blair woods.

Of course, it’s also half a joke, a riff on the absurdity of the horror genre as well as an example of it. And it’s only the second half of the picture, which starts out as an affectionate satire of the underground movie scene and relationship comedy-drama before segueing into the baggy stuff.

Those initial reels are, in fact, the best part of this very uneven super-low-budget exercise. The scenes of the screening of an ersatz “mumblecore”-ish flick at a grubby little festival—including a spot-on parody of a Q&A afterward—will be priceless to those personally acquainted with such tacky events. And the cell-phone subterfuge the central quartet—couples Matt (Ross Patridge) and Catherine (Elise Muller), Chad (Steve Zissis) and Michelle (Greta Gerwig)—use to sneak into the after-party has the ring of absurd honesty to it. The ensuing sequences showing the shifting emotional currents among the four are also interesting, the largely improvised, overlapping dialogue coming across as realistic and the glances and halting come-ons caught by the camera having a ring of truth, too.

But there are definite drawbacks to the method as well. The acting across the board is pretty amateurish, and the camerawork is understandably ragged, with only the most cursory sense of composition. Mumblecore product is frequently dismissed as nothing more than glorified home movies, and “Baghead” could serve as confirmation of the charge.

The most unfortunate part of the picture, though, is the turn to genre business in the last act. All the stuff about the shrouded villain stalking the two couples at the isolated cabin where they’ve gone to write a screenplay is frankly weak, and indifferently played out, with far too many murky, unfocused shots of the quartet running through the woods. Quite simply, it works neither as a real horror movie nor as a take-off on one. There’s an attempt to recover with a cynical concluding twist, but it’s a lot less clever than the makers apparently think.

So “Baghead” will hold a certain intrinsic interest for students of the moviemaking fringe as an example of America’s radically undogmatic variant of the no-frills Dutch Dogma movement, but taken on its own, it’s the sort of thing that’s usually referred to as “showing promise.”

BEFORE THE RAINS

Though this period domestic drama, set against the backdrop of the movement for Indian independence in the late 1930s, was actually an independent production, it’s been given the Merchant-Ivory imprimatur, which seems appropriate for a picture that’s well-mannered, high-minded and, despite its potentially inflammatory dramatic arc, curiously tepid. “Before the Rains” is like an episode of Masterpiece Theatre that’s unaccountably migrated to the big screen.

An expansion of an episode called “Red Roofs” from Dany Verete’s anthology film “The Desert Trilogy:Yellow Asphalt,” the locale transferred from the Middle East to the subcontinent, Cathy Rabin’s script centers on an Indian woman, Sajani (Nandita Das), who serves as housemaid to the family of British spice entrepreneur Henry Moores (Linus Roache), with whom she has an affair. Caught in the middle of things is Moores’ local assistant T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose), who’s serving as his liaison to villagers recruited to help him build a road that will enhance his business operations.

Neelan must try to conceal Sanjani’s infidelity from her father and her abusive husband Rajat (Lal Paul), but his efforts are ultimately unsuccessful. And the return of Henry’s wife (Jennifer Ehle) and son from a trip abroad forces him to make a decision about his relationship with Sanjani. The upshot is a tragedy and an attempt to cover it up, which will finally force Neelan to choose between loyalty to his British employer and support for the pro-independence movement that’s becoming ever more active.

There’s a lot going on here, both in the back- and in the foreground, and it’s all potentially electrifying. But as played under Santosh Sivan’s direction, the picture is more decorous than involving; even the love scenes lack the sultry quality one would expect them to have, and a particularly dramatic moment involving a death is curiously muted. The subtler moments are more successful, as in a moment when Sanjani serves Henry and his wife at table and he studiously ignores her. The pain on her face is palpable, and says more about the cultural division perpetuated by British imperialism than almost anything else in the picture.

It’s just the most striking of many good moments in the performance of Das, who’s the film’s linchpin. And both Bose and Roache deliver committed turns, even if they’re not quite her equal. Some of the supporting players (Paul in particular) are a trifle fierce, and others rather subdued, but overall they’re at least acceptable.

But ultimately, despite a slick physical production accomplished by a mostly Indian crew (with Sivan serving as his own cinematographer) and solid work from the cast, “Before the Rains” comes across as a timid treatment of an explosive subject. It’s as if all the stylistic water put out the emotional fire that should be blazing here.