Round-Up: Tetro, Funny People, (500) Days of Summer, Harry Potter
By Fernando F. Croce

Late in Tetro, the scratchy, anguished, greasy-haired "genius" of the title (a Vincent Gallo role, and sure enough...) declares to a queenly drama critic (Carmen Maura, in a svelte bit of caricature) that he no longer cares about her opinion. Telling off a Louella Parsons/Pauline Kael vulturette is an auteurís fantasy, but one that Francis Ford Coppola has earned. Nearing the fifth decade in a career of cinematic waves and masks (Corman alum, New Hollywood genius, Zoetrope honcho, vineyard Napoleon, Sofiaís dad), the filmmaker at 70 is out to live the story he filmed in Youth Without Youth as a magically rejuvenated artist with a ravenous appetite for symbols, sensuality, and anachronistically unguarded emotions. Like Romania in the earlier film, Buenos Aires here is a half-lyrical, half-malignant dreamscape, lit monochromatically and adorned with inscrutable graffiti. Galloís Tetro is a one-time theatrical prodigy whose "writing sabbatical" has long turned to moody inertia; when not smashing furniture with his crutches or watching domestic spats from cafť tables, he mans the spotlight at the local cabaret and bellows things like "Language is dead!" in the middle of a transvestite version of Faust. The young half-brother he left in New York, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), drops by in a gleaming naval suit, spoilable innocence to Tetroís gaunt experience. Itís not a festive reunion. Tetroís wife (Maribel Verdķ) tries to mediate the volatile space between the brothers, though the major figure is a distant one, the father (Klaus Maria Brandauer) back home, a renowned conductor and pitiless steamroller of artistic aspirations. A diva mother and a stolen fiancťe also figure in the brooderís definition of family as "a quick stab in the heart," rejection and self-exile are his escape. Stashed somewhere is Tetroís autobiographical opus, which to Bennie is a key to familial secrets and a goldmine for his own ambition to become a writer.

Tetro starts out like ersatz William Inge and proceeds into Verdiland by way of Freud. I canít think of a more high-strung session of family therapy this side of Bertolucciís La Luna. As with Movie-Brat pals Scorsese, De Palma and Milius, Coppolaís great theme is the clash with artistic forebearers -- the need to challenge elders even as theyíre revered, which in Coppolaís work manifests itself in obsessive sins-of-the-father motifs and the discordant resurrection of dead tropes. Itís hard to miss the shadow of Don Corleone, the directorís great paternal monster, in the bulky figure of Maria Brandauerís manipulative maestro, just as the throbbing Technicolor of Powell-Pressburgerís The Tales of Hoffmann is revived in hi-def arias of wacky intensity. Coppolaís goal may be to reinvent himself, but the query haunting him remains the same that haunted the upstart of Dementia 13: What is art? The bundle of baffling scrawlings thatís decoded into painful truths? Or the burning light that taunts and eludes the protagonist, radiating from a desk lamp, a bloody car wreck, the Patagonian Andes? The question would carry more resonance if someone other than Gallo were asking it. Iím guessing he was cast for meta-baggage -- having the Brown Bunny maker play a masochistically intransigent artiste sounds like a good idea, but the thing is that Gallo is a humorless and dead-eyed presence, a monotonously glowering wolf who huffs and puffs but never blows the house down. Even with this self-flagellant at its center, however, Tetro moves and startles. Operatic interludes splash the screen with color, yet the trajectory hews closer to darkness, illuminated by flares that turn out to be incoming traffic and a final affirmation ("Weíre family") thatís less than reassuring to anybody who remembers The Rain People. Coppolaís back, big time. Canít wait to see where he goes next.

*

Could Judd Apatow be as much of a slave to his own success as Coppola? The Godfather and Knocked Up arenít anywhere near the same artistic galaxy, but both are the kind of early smash that can entrap a filmmaker, and, indeed, Funny People has the distinct scent of personal range-stretching. The difference, it goes without saying, is that thereís more to Coppola than Cosa Nostra rubouts, while Apatow has only his slobby buddies and repertoire of cock jokes to offer. And theyíre not even good cock jokes. Itís tough being a moneyed clown, apparently. The opening cuts from video footage of scrawny, twentysomething Adam Sandler making prank calls in elfish voices to the bulkier, oddly grave Sandler of today, playing a comic superstar whose brush with mortality in the form of a potentially fatal blood disease makes him rethink his loveless, friendless, affluent lifestyle. Sort of. His sidekick/confidante/audience proxy is a young, hungry stand-up comic who becomes a gag writer and an uneasy friend during Sandlerís crisis; heís played as an ostensibly cuddly koala bear by Seth Rogen, whoís lost a few pounds but hasnít added any new talent. This is supposed to be Apatowís Sullivanís Travels, a stab at breaking out of the padded-wall ghetto of man-child comedy thatís even referenced on screen: "Ooh, heís getting a little dark there," Rogen comments of Sandlerís new sardonic shtick during a nightclub appearance. Unfortunately, being "contemplative" for him means alternating between Jonah Hill spitting out yet another scrotum zinger and Leslie Mann twinkling in moist close-up. The risquť humor is still in place ("When was the first time you fingered a girl?" is sensitive talk here), but more than ever itís merely margarine spread over the filmmakerís celebrity whining and family-values platitudes. "Please feel sorry for me" buttons donít make great comedy. As Sandler puts it, "just write me some fucking jokes!"

*

(500) Days of Summer. Summer is the quirky heroine (Zooey Deschanel), the days refer to the nearly two years the protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spends wooing, decrying, glorifying, and being mystified by her. Or maybe thatís how long the movie seems to last. Weíre down to day 488 at the onset, but director Marc Webb shuffles back and forth in the timeline separating meet-cute and breakup. Gordon-Levitt is a greeting-card writer with architectural aspirations, Deschanel is a coltish receptionist and all-around obscure object of desire; he sees her as the love of his life, she wants to keep it casual, a night of karaoke brings them together. Sub-Cameron Crowe romantic whimsy ensues. Annie Hall keeps getting invoked in reviews, though the temporal flea-hopping feels closer to FranÁois Ozonís 5x2, which dissected a relationship by recalling its stages in reverse order. Then again, judging from the Bergman pastiche thatís meant to visualize the protagonistís separation blues (post-coital bliss is a dance production with cartoon bluebirds), maybe the only foreign movies Webb knows are the ones lampooned by Woody Allen. As far as rock-alternative-scored rom-coms go, (500) Days is not as suicide-inducing as Away We Go but not as affecting as Nick & Norahís Infinite Playlist. The coupleís fluctuations between amorous rapture and wounding are matched by the filmís own seesaw of poignancy and irritation -- for every sharp bit, like Deschanelís curt explanation of why their love didnít last, thereís a dollop of forced cuteness, like the wise-beyond-her-years kid clichť that hasnít been fresh since 1895. Whatever charm there is comes from the performers. Gordon-Levitt, one of the best young actors around, brings emotional verity to his blinkered-nerd role. And Deschanel makes Summer a tantalizing moonbeam, the sort of fantasy gal who can play house at an Ikea store and then watch a porno and quip, "That looks doable."

*

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth entry in the juggernaut franchise (directed, like The Order of the Phoenix, by David Yates), seems to me the most disappointing of the bunch, if only because it opens so promisingly. In short order, thereís a bloody-lipped Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) being devoured by the flashbulbs of a crowd of reporters, a supernatural terrorist attack on a gray London, and the introduction of the first-rate Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, the new professor at Hogwarts. Even for this non-fan of the J.K. Rowlings books and their screen versions, this is bracing stuff. Alas, the seriesí trademark mix of little-prince twee and fabricated wonder doesnít take long to kick in and dissipate the potent horror-movie imagery. To summarize: Darth Voldemort is gathering dark clouds, Obi-Wan Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is on his last grand-wizard legs, and Harry Skywalker is cozy enough with the "Chosen One" tag to consider using it to pick up chicks. The rest is less lackluster coming-of-age fantasy than lackluster teen romance, down to the "Excuse me while I vomit" petulance of Emma Watsonís Hermione. As if! While the plot cranks its way across the screen, one grabs furtive curlicues of pleasure: Alan Rickmanís pauses as Severus Snape (pitched between a Pinter play and Bela Lugosi circa 1931), Rupert Grintís understanding of the awkward comedy of an overgrown boy balancing himself on a broomstick, Evanna Lynchís moonstruck readings, witchy Helena Bonham Carterís exultant stride on a Great Hall table. Maybe the last two chapters will pick up the slack, though by the umpteenth time these kids started moping about potions and wands and dark forces, I was ready to tell them to just snog off.


Reviewed August 7, 2009.

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