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TETRO

D

After the ludicrous “Youth Without Youth,” Francis Ford Coppola continues his downward spiral with this florid melodrama about a highly dysfunctional family. The old-fashioned tale could be taken for a lesser work by John Steinbeck in his “East of Eden” period, and the fifties feel is accentuated by the director’s decision to shoot it mostly in black-and-white (the flashbacks are in color). But the splashily flamboyant technique—as much visual overkill as in “One from the Heart”—and goofy philosophizing about creativity and genius is pure, unadulterated Coppola. It’s another deeply embarrassing misfire from a man once considered a major American filmmaker.

The narrative begins with Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) arriving in Buenos Aires as a waiter on a cruise ship. He’s come to look up his long-lost older brother, now calling himself Tetro (Vincent Gallo), who fled their home years earlier leaving a note promising to return for his beloved younger sibling—a promise he failed to keep. It turns out that Tetro, a shaggy, abrasive fellow, has pretty much abandoned his writing career and is living with vivacious girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdu), occasionally operating the lights at a run-down local theatre run by a womanizer named Jose (Rodrigo De La Serna), where a would-be avant-garde playwright named Abelardo (Mike Amigorena) puts on scandalous shows. He certainly offers no welcome to Bennie, who’s puzzled and saddened by his dismissive attitude.

But when Bennie’s ship suffers a mechanical problem that delays its departure, Tetro reluctantly allows him to stay in his apartment, which allows Bennie to find—and decipher—his brother’s unfinished manuscripts. They reveal—through those color flashbacks—the abusive treatment Tetro suffered from the boys’ dictatorial father, famed orchestral conductor Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), including the final indignity that caused him not only to flee the house but, as we eventually learn, to keep a terrible family secret ever since (a secret that many viewers will have guessed long before Coppola chooses to tell it to us).

By the time that revelation is sprung, though, Bennie has suffered an accident that prevents him from leaving and, after another dustup with Tetro, gives him the opportunity to finish his brother’s uncompleted play and get it accepted as their joint work into the Patagonia Festival, a prestigious arts competition run by the country’s greatest critic, a spectral woman who calls herself Alone (Carmen Maura) and has long dismissed Tetro for failing to realize his full potential.

That sets the stage for what’s easily the worst part of the picture—a couple of ludicrously operatic sequences that reek of pomposity and empty visual ostentation. The first involves the Festival presentation of a scene from the brothers’ play—which earns wild cheers from the starry crowd but is by any measure incredible rubbish. (This is the point at which Tetro’s big revelation also occurs, sending Bennie into an emotional tailspin.) But even that is topped by the sudden announcement of Carlo’s death, which occasions a nutty funeral scene that casts the collapse of the house as though it were the fall of Valhalla in “Gotterdammerung” (though the music is by Brahms, not Wagner).

This is all old-fashioned melodramatic claptrap, served up in ridiculously overblown style. It does have a few virtues. Despite the absurdity of the material, Ehrenreich proves an engaging presence and may be a real find. Verdu is better than the script deserves as well. And though the visual flamboyance has an annoying “look at me” quality, the technical work is impressive, especially given the obviously modest budget. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s widescreen cinematography has a luminous quality, and the overall production design by Sebastian Orgambide hides the budgetary limitations skillfully.

But while not as pretentious and impenetrable a dish as “Youth Without Youth,” “Tetro” is equally indigestible.

WATCHMEN

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People are going to react very differently to “Watchmen,” the epic-sized adaptation by Zack Snyder (“300”) of the 12-part 1986-7 comic mini-series by genre guru Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons that was quickly reprinted as a graphic novel and, along with Frank Miller’s contemporaneous “The Dark Knight Returns,” marked a watershed in the medium. Various filmmakers have been trying for decades to bring it to the screen, but it proved a tough nut to crack, and now that Snyder’s managed to do so, the result is likely to divide the original’s devoted admirers while failing to satisfy those coming to it without prior acquaintance. (Moore himself, who put up with what he considered bastardizations of his later work in “V for Vendetta,” “From Hell” and especially “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” disowned the whole project and demanded that his name be removed from it.)

Readers who’ve embraced the bleak, genre-bending vision of the book—about a group of retired (indeed, outlawed) costumed heroes in an “alternate” eighties America where Richard Nixon is in his fifth term and the world is on the brink of nuclear war, who reemerge to solve the murder of one of their own—actually have a good deal to celebrate here. Scripters David Haynter and Alex Tse have lifted much of the dialogue from the book, and Snyder is obviously in love with his source, using his formidable visual prowess (and access to a big budget and an army of technicians) to realize on screen the look of Gibbons’ panels. Just from those perspectives, if you’re a Moore acolyte even the 161 minutes lavished on “Watchmen” will seem too few.

And yet some of the book’s devotees are going to be dissatisfied. They’re likely to accept, grudgingly, most of the excisions and compressions, understanding that the material had to be whittled down if it was going to be a feature rather than a mini-series. But they’re going to be really peeved about major changes, especially in the ending. And they have a right to be. It seems simply incongruous for Snyder to have aimed so obsessively for the kind of visual fidelity to the book that fans would appreciate and approached the material almost as though it were Holy Writ for the most part, but then to have altered Moore’s plot in important ways. What’s the point?

Well, I suppose that the reason is obvious—he also wanted to appeal to a wider audience, which just might swallow the new concluding twist more easily than they would have Moore’s nuttier contrivance. (The change also made it easier for the effects team, but surely so crass a motive wouldn’t have swayed Snyder.)

But if that’s the motive, it’s unlikely to succeed, first of all because it’s improbable that a film that offers a political vision even darker and more dystopian that the oppressive dictatorship of “Vendetta” will appeal in today’s U.S.A. Snyder’s “Watchmen” seems more attuned to the zeitgeist of the Bush-Cheney years than to the opening of an Obama presidency. The timing is off. And by trying essentially to be a movie made for a bunch of fans while simultaneously appealing to a mass audience, it may well fail at both: whether it will expand the base or be confined to the one it began with (and disappoint some of it) is an open question.

That’s especially the case because if one approaches it cold, without reverence for the Moore-Gibbons original, it’s technically impressive, but also ponderous, self-important, unpleasantly violent and, quite frankly, kind of silly. Let me confess that I’m not a groupie. I have read “Watchmen,” but more out of a sense of duty than devotion, and while I appreciated Moore’s attempt to re-imagine the psychological underpinnings of the entire costumed-hero mythology, it didn’t quite come off—partially because the mystery at the heart of the plot was obvious, but also because the freshly-minted characters didn’t have the lived-in familiarity of the super-heroes who’d inhabited the comic pages for decades. They were pale imitations of the “real” thing. And frankly Moore’s political views represented—like those in “Vendetta”—a sort of radical chic that felt more like a pose than a deeply held belief.

These weaknesses are exacerbated in the film. The urban landscape is impressively created, but it’s the same sort of forbidding, rain-soaked, gloomy place we’ve seen in lots of earlier pictures. The “whodunit” part of the plot never grabs us, because the victim, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is a brutish, vicious thug and the shamus who’s obsessed with tracking down the truth—Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a vigilante who wears a white mask on which black blotches continually change shape—is as psychopathic as the villains he tracks down. (Sure, that’s the idea—but it makes him as difficult to connect with as the terrorist in “Vendetta.” And the reams of hard-boiled narration he has to deliver is the sort of overripe prose one can tolerate much more easily in print than as “drama.”)

Nor do the other characters generate much voltage, despite the fact that one—Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), is an astronomically powerful turquoise-colored humanoid formed from one of those scientific accidents that recur in the genre. He’s initially partnered with the generically svelte Silk Sceptre (Malin Akerman), but she eventually turns to someone who can get intimate with her without dividing into several copies of himself as Manhattan does—the blandly boyish Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a sort of Batman Lite with a fancy flying ship among other tools of the crime-fighting trade. The final member of the group is Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who humbly styles himself as the Smartest Man in the World and has used his brain to build a huge business empire.

In the time allotted to them within a single feature, these characters never fill out beyond sketch status, and as a result the parts don’t afford much opportunity for the actors to shine, especially since Snyder appears much more interested in posing them within his carefully-framed compositions than anything else. Haley fares best, simply because the combination of badass attitude and diminutive physique has a certain amusing quality. But Wilson and Akerman are ordinary, Goode overdoes the effete snob routine, and Morgan seems to be channeling J.K. Simmon’s Jonah Jameson at a far nastier level. Then there’s Crudup, a good actor so totally submerged in effects that he practically disappears. (His flashback autobiography is the best one in a movie filled with them, as the book was—though, true to tell, that isn’t saying much.)

To be fair, there are a few elements of the picture that do work unreservedly. The opening credit sequence is inventive and wondrously crafted, promising more than the film itself delivers. And it’s enjoyable to watch Robert Wisden do his Nixon imitation, though the cartoonish fake nose looks more like Cyrano or Bob Hope, as well as the briefer appearances by the likes of Henry Kissinger, Pat Buchanan, Ted Koppel, John McLaughlin and Eleanor Clift. But for the most part the picture has a solemn, ponderous, pretentious air that grows progressively wearisome over more than two-and-a-half hours—at least for one who doesn’t hold Moore’s book as the revelatory accomplishment many consider it to be.

So “Watchmen” turns out to be a $100 million cult movie that some fans may adore—if they can stomach the changes; but despite the visual virtuosity, it will bore many if not most of the uninitiated.