Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's all in the family -- for Coppola

No matter what kind of movies he makes, I always feel some admiration for Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola's last movie, "Youth Without Youth," was an awful muddle, but I admired the fact that cinema's flamboyant maestro seemed intent on ignoring Hollywood convention and following his muse. Coppola has done that again with "Tetro," this time with improved results, although the movie proves a mixed blessing.

As he did in the "Godfather" movies, Coppola explores the contradictory nature of family life -- the way it breeds resentments even as it provides our most enduring connections. Working from the first original script he has written since 1994's "The Conversation," Coppola floods the screen with astonishing images and beautifully lit black-and-white digital photography, but the inability of the story to match Coppola's visual artistry tends to dampen enthusiasm over the movie's 127-minute running time. Put it this way: Coppola conducts like Toscanini, but his writing lacks profundity or even the excitement of a genuinely propulsive plot. The bigger the movie gets, the grander its gestures become. But the melodrama doesn't always support Coppola's visual artistry, and "Tetro" reaches a point at which we begin to wonder whether we're supposed to take any of it seriously.

The story: Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) visits his brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Tetro, who has shed his family name, Tetrocini, has taken up residence in Buenos Aires after abandoning a promising career as a writer. Smoking cigarettes, hanging out at sidewalk cafes and occasionally working as a lighting technician in a small theater, Tetro wallows in resentment. He claims to have no interest in seeing his brother, who has arrived in Buenos Aires. Bennie's working on a cruise ship that has docked in the Argentine port city for a few days.

It's obvious that the younger brother and older sibling will reach some kind of rapprochement after the requisite amount of tension has built toward the obligatory explosion. Coppola pushes a soap opera plot onto an operatic stage, as he works his way toward a third act in which the movie begins to look Fellini-esque. By then we've learned that Tetro has written a play using an obscure code. After tinkering from younger brother Bennie, the play finds its way to an important theater festival sponsored by a powerful critic who goes by the name, Alone (Carmen Maura). The play's the thing that prompts a showdown between Bennie and Tetro, leading to the divulgence of secrets that are meant to shake the movie's universe to its core.

The story also takes us through Bennie's loss of virginity, and Tetro's relationship with his live-in lover (Maribel Verdu). Verdu's Miranda nurtures both Tetro and Bennie. They need her kind of unconditional love because they have daddy issues. Children of different mothers, the brothers share the same father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a famous conductor who has dominated his children in tyrannical ways.

As a result, Tetro hates his father with a passion that centers on a secret that's revealed toward the end of the movie and which hardly comes as a total surprise.

Coppola makes movies that speak the way he wants them to speak. "Tetro" occupies a world of its own; it's a film in which emotions are meant to swell like great waves, finally breaking across Coppola's dreamscape. It's telling, though, that Coppola's display of directorial skill might be more memorable than any of the movie's characters.

Still, don't make the mistake of thinking that Coppola is indulging his artistic ego; I don't think that's the case. His movies may not always work or capture the spirit of their times, but I believe Coppola has a great generosity of spirit as a director, that he wants to share his pleasure in cinema with an audience. Coppola's not grandstanding for himself, but for the medium he loves.


Captain Abu Raed takes us to Jordan for a story that initially seems as if it's going to get by on the charm of its lead actor, Nadim Sawalha. Sawalha, a portly man with a gray beard, portrays the title character, an airport janitor who tells stories to the kids in his neighborhood. Sawalha's Abu Raed is mistaken for a pilot by the kids who are eager to learn something about the world that Abu Raed supposedly has seen. He tells them he's no pilot, but they don't believe him. As a man of accommodating spirit, Abu Raed plays along. Writer/director Amin Matalqa, whose film brims with small pleasures, deepens the story by showing how the dreams of poor kids in Amman tend to be stunted. He also takes the drama into unexpectedly rough terrain when Abu Raed tries to help a youngster who has a particularly abusive father.

Both "Tetro" and "Captain Abu Raed" open in Denver Friday.

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