Friday, February 29, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Other Boleyn Girl (Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, dir. Justin Chadwick)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think I have a relatively high tolerance for silly period pieces, but this one is simultaneously too silly and not silly enough. A ridiculous, trashy soap opera I could maybe get behind (I did find bits of Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Showtime's The Tudors entertaining), and a serious historical drama and character study would certainly be worthwhile. But this movie is neither, and despite Portman's feisty performance, it just ends up in a boring middle ground. Wide release

Penelope (Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara, Peter Dinklage, dir. Mark Palansky)
I saw this at CineVegas over the summer and was entirely underwhelmed, although it was perfectly harmless. I like Christina Ricci a lot, but she kind of coasts through this role, and the movie is a lot of warmed-over Tim Burton-style whimsy. It also has a tension between its family-friendly fairy-tale style (it's rated PG) and some more adult themes and plot elements. Overall it's a pleasant time-killer, but entirely forgettable (I'm lucky I could remember this much to write about it after eight months). Wide release

Semi-Pro (Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin, dir. Kent Alterman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really do like Will Ferrell, and I thought Anchorman was very funny. So I expect more from him than your typical slapdash mainstream comedy, and he has not delivered lately. He seems to be on autopilot with this one, although it's better than Blades of Glory, and the scene where Ferrell's character fights a bear has a certain absurd energy to it (I also love Kristen Wiig's deadpan performance as the bear trainer). I'd say that I have higher hopes for Ferrell's next collaboration with Anchorman and Talladega Nights director Adam McKay, but after this early screening report, I'm not so sure. Wide release

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

The pervasive sexism of these old screwball romantic comedies has hampered my enjoyment of them in the past (I couldn't get into His Girl Friday at all), but it was subdued enough here that I was able to focus mostly on the film's many virtues, including the incredibly smart writing, the surprisingly complex plot and the excellent acting. This is one of the prototypical romantic comedies, but for much of its running time it presents a genuine question of which potential suitor the heroine will end up with (her dopey, barely seen fiance is of course out of the running, but both Cary Grant and James Stewart play the kinds of characters who typically end up getting the girl in romantic comedies). The eventual resolution is the most obvious one, but for once it actually feels earned, even if it forces Katharine Hepburn's headstrong Tracy to assume the subservient, traditionally feminine role that she's spent most of the movie avoiding.

Stewart (who won an Oscar for his role) and Grant are both excellent as the cynical but of course goodhearted men who are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by Hepburn's often abrasive blueblood, and Hepburn herself gives a great performance that should be studied by all female rom-com leads, making Tracy into a smart and independent woman who's not defined solely by her search for love (until, um, the end of the movie). Ruth Hussey is also appealing as the sort of background love interest who turns out to be the right one for Stewart's Macaulay Connor. She doesn't have as much screen time, so she doesn't have to undergo quite as much taming as Tracy does to make the outcome of the movie conform to traditional ideas of marriage and romance.

The scene in which Tracy's father basically tells her that women are obligated to tolerate their husbands' affairs, and it's the wife's fault if a marriage breaks up after the man cheats - and then she apologizes to him for disagreeing! - did make me a bit ill, but it's well-balanced by all the wonderful post-party scenes the night before the doomed wedding, where the drunken characters engage in all sorts of funny and honest soul-baring and debauched behavior. This is a film resolutely of its time, to be certain, and deserves a little leeway. But it seems like so many of the movies that it's influenced have taken from it only its ultimately regressive sexual politics and not its celebration of challenging romance between complicated people.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

Thanks to the fine folks in DC's publicity department, I got a copy of this graphic novel a few days before it was released, and thought I might actually be able to write up a timely review to coincide with the book hitting stores. That was, uh, back in mid-November, and I just finished reading it a few days ago. Now, that's partly due to my limited free time and the amount of attention I devoted to reading my weekly comics haul and a couple of prose books I had to review, but generally I can read a graphic novel, even a fairly thick one, in a couple of hours. It's a testament to how dense, intricate and just plain hard to read this book is that it took me this long to get through the relatively slim volume. The last time I can remember having to devote this much time and energy to a graphic novel was when I read From Hell, not coincidentally also written by Alan Moore.

The first two League volumes, which were released as individual issues before later being collected (Black Dossier has only been released as a standalone graphic novel), were relatively light and breezy reads, some of the most fun and action-packed writing Moore has done. Dossier is quite the opposite, basically taking the aspects of the back-up prose stories in the first two volumes (the Allan Quatermain adventure "Allan and the Sundered Veil" in the first volume, and the tedious travelogue "The New Traveller's Almanac" in the second) and expanding them to a whole book, with Moore aping the styles of all sorts of writers from the history of English-language literature. What began as a Justice League/Avengers pastiche using famous literary characters has grown into Moore's grand unifying theory of the entirety of Western popular culture. And while he's probably the best candidate to write something like that, Black Dossier often reads more like an academic treatise than an adventure story.

The basic premise is simple: It's now 1958, and Mina Murray (of Dracula fame) and Allan Quatermain, the two most prominent characters in the team featured in the first two volumes (which took place in the 1890s), are now immortal thanks to a fountain of youth in Africa and on the run from the post-Big Brother British government, after having severed their ties with their handlers some time in the 1930s or '40s. They're after the titular dossier, which contains a bunch of info on the exploits of various incarnations of the team in eras both before and after the ones that Moore's already written about. The story, basically a long, not particularly exciting chase sequence, is represented in standard comics style (with wonderful art as always from Kevin O'Neill), while the dossier itself is made up like it's excerpts from actual books and documents of its respective eras (a lost Shakespeare folio, illustrated text pieces, pamphlets, unpublished follow-ups to various famous and not-so-famous works of literature, etc.).

Moore's skill at replicating the tone and style of so many varied works is unparalleled, but it's more an intellectual exercise than an exciting way to tell a story. And while the characters from the original team (Murray, Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man) are all easily recognizable to most people, many of the characters who show up in Black Dossier are obscure and not easily identified, and enjoying the story depends a lot on understanding the avalanche of references. This is the first League book that feels to me like it really needs Jess Nevins' detailed annotations to be appreciated. There are some pretty famous appearances, sure (James Bond, made into a cowardly villain; Prospero; Gulliver), but they are definitely outweighed by the lesser-known. I consider myself relatively well-read, and I often felt lost.

The other problem with the book is that it's a classic example of telling and not showing. Moore presents a whole mess of adventures for his team in its various incarnations, but he mostly just lays them out in dry, quick prose, making them into reports rather than stories. I don't know if he plans to more fully tell the stories at this point, but if so then this entire book is just one big, not-very-fun spoiler. It reads, as some have pointed out, like an epilogue to the series, with an ending (the part that uses 3-D glasses that gave me a headache) that does the same sort of meta, talk-to-the-reader thing that Moore did in the later issues of Promethea. Prospero tells us how wonderful and everlasting the world of stories is, but it's hard to get that from this dense, dry and sadly dull book. I hope that, freed from what he viewed as his shackles at DC, Moore can get back to some excitement and entertainment in the next League volume, which is supposed to be coming from Top Shelf whenever they get it done (meaning probably not for a few years yet).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Movies opening this week

Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, dir. Jon Poll)
A lot of people have compared this film to both Rushmore and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and even though I'm not a Rushmore fan I think Charlie comes off poorly in relation to both. It really has a sitcom understanding of teen life, and despite its R rating and plot involving prescription drugs, it's about as cuddly a portrait of high school as something on the Disney Channel. Yelchin is irritating and not believable as Charlie, who never comes off like a real person. The plot puts an "edgy" spin on the same tired kids vs. authority tropes we've seen a million times, and the film overall just seems to think it's a lot cooler than it really is. Wide release

Vantage Point (Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, William Hurt, Edgar Ramirez, dir. Pete Travis)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
No matter how hard they try with the dumb, pointless storytelling gimmick, the filmmakers can't make this movie into anything other than a second-rate thriller full of plot holes. Nothing really comes together in the end, and all the relative excitement (there is a pretty good car chase) isn't worth much when the credits roll and you realize that you have no idea why any of the stuff happened, and that it could have all easily happened in about 45 minutes less of your time. Wide release

Marvel Comics Presents

I've been meaning to write about this series for a while now, since after almost every issue I've thought, "Well, I probably won't buy any more," and then the next issue comes out and something compels me to pick it up to see what else it has to offer. After six issues, I'm still torn on whether to buy the next one, but I have to admit they are at least doing something right here, and Marvel's willingness to put out an anthology title (notoriously low sellers for mainstream American comics) that often spotlights their more obscure characters is worth supporting.

The original 175-issue run of Marvel Comics Presents from the late '80s through the early '90s is one of the few examples of a successful comics anthology from a big American publisher, but I've never read any of those old issues. I'm now at a point where I tend to ignore most of Marvel's high-profile series, but I still have a certain degree of affection for their universe and wide range of characters, so a book like this, with four short stories each month - some parts of serials, others stand-alone tales - is theoretically perfect for me. It's not part of some wide-ranging crossover, and it's not expected to reinvent major elements of the Marvel universe. It's just supposed to tell good stories.

Whether it succeeds at that varies from story to story and issue to issue. The meat of the series so far has been two 12-part serials, one of which has grabbed my attention, and one of which has not. Marc Guggenheim's "Vanguard" started out slowly, with cops investigating a mysterious murder apparently connected to superheroes, and even at the halfway mark not much has been revealed. But the twists and turns have caught my interest, and I like Guggenheim's introduction of a black-ops team of offbeat anti-heroes, which is exactly the sort of thing I would hope to see in this book. Dave Wilkins' art (with occasional fill-ins by Francis Tsai) is a little stiff and posed, but overall my desire to find out what happens next in this story is my main reason to pick up the book.

The other 12-parter is much less interesting. It follows up on a Brian Bendis story from New Avengers that I didn't read, and continues events from the Omega Flight miniseries, which I also didn't read. It's cheesy and overwrought superhero stuff from writer Rich Koslowski (whose acclaimed graphic novel The King I also found cheesy and awkward), with bright, undistinguished art by Andrea DiVito. Yet it's far from unreadable, and although it's also slow it does contain moments of intrigue, and I'm mildly curious to see where it goes. I'd probably be a lot more interested at about half the length, though.

What comes in between those two stories varies each month, and is the main factor in deciding whether the book as a whole is worth picking up. Most of the one-off stories, which tend to focus more on big-name characters so they can be plastered on the cover, are enjoyably forgettable at best and painfully contrived at worst. The shorter serials have so far been hit-or-miss; the first four issues featured a delightful if somewhat nonsensical Hellcat story, with lovely art by Stuart Immonen and unfocused story by his wife Kathryn. The two more recent issues have featured the first two parts of a three-part Savage Land story by Christos Gage and Joyce Chin that's basically just mindless action, and has pretty much bored me.

So will I buy the next issue? Even at a higher price ($3.99) and with varying quality, there is still generally more here that's worthwhile than not, and with the exception of the Weapon Omega story, if I don't like something it'll quickly be replaced by something else. Moreover, the idea of this book existing as an oasis amid crossovers and overblown events and eight different books starring Wolverine does appeal to me. Maybe it's time to stop debating about picking up another issue and just commit to reading it (at least until it gets canceled around issue 15).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Movies opening this week

Definitely, Maybe (Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Abigail Breslin, dir. Adam Brooks)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm a little surprised at all the good reviews for this movie (check out MaryAnn Johanson's inordinately gushing take), which struck me as little more than another ho-hum romantic comedy, although not as grating as last week's Fool's Gold. Maybe it's my pathological aversion to Ryan Reynolds, or maybe it's my cold, black heart, but this movie just did not do it for me. It's whiny, it's unfocused, it's illogical, and it's not funny. The female leads are mostly charming (although Fisher gets sort of shrill at times), but that's not enough to redeem this one. Wide release

Diary of the Dead (Michelle Morgan, Josh Close, Shawn Roberts, dir. George A. Romero)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really do like George Romero; seeing Night of the Living Dead for the first time, on the old cheesy Saturday-night horror-movie showcase on local Vegas TV hosted by Count Cool Rider, was a formative experience for me, and I really like Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and much of his Day of the Dead as well. And I respect that he has stuck to his passion and continued making horror movies. But this is a bad, bad movie, and some of the positive reviews really read like apologies for Romero's clumsy, heavy-handed preachiness, which is far more prominent in the movie than zombie attacks are. He's already talking about a direct sequel to this one, but maybe he'd be better of just letting the whole zombie thing go (not that he will, since that's the only real way his movies get any attention). Limited release

In Bruges (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, dir. Martin McDonagh)
Something about this movie just felt off to me, like all of its various elements never fit well together. It's a fairly derivative Tarantino-style thriller, starring two overly reflective and articulate hitmen, and its overwritten banter is occasionally amusing. But then there's this equally strong element of melodramatic seriousness that never jibes with the comedy, and McDonagh seems to be trying too hard on both ends. There's also a bunch of really choppy editing, and some unconvincing acting from Farrell, who always comes off like a petulant little boy to me, although I realize a lot of people think he's really talented. It's all just a little too self-consciously clever to work out into anything worthwhile. Opened limited Feb. 8; in Las Vegas this week

Jumper (Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Rachel Bilson, Jamie Bell, dir. Doug Liman)
Despite his reputation as an abrasive jackass who leaves the actual directing to producers, writers and/or editors on his various projects, I generally like Liman's work, and he's proved himself good at making brisk, entertaining action movies (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith). But this one is a total mess. It's full of glaring plot holes and inconsistencies, it has a whiny jerk as a protagonist (played by a whiny, annoying actor), it ends without resolving anything or even properly setting up a sequel, and about the only thing it has going for it is that it looks really expensive. That's really all I could think about as I was watching all the helicopter shots of far-flung locations; huge, effects-heavy stunt sequences; and fight scenes that jump from one exotic place to another, thanks to the characters' ability to teleport. Those scenes are a bit cool at first, just to imagine how they might have been pulled off logistically, but they don't make the movie any more logical or interesting. Wide release

The Spiderwick Chronicles (Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, dir. Mark Waters)
I suppose it's pointless to rag on this ultimately forgettable and harmless movie, which is slightly better than your average kiddie fare, but I just found it boring and a little sloppy, with unconvincing effects and a half-baked story. It still bugs me that Highmore is apparently the only male kid actor studios will bother casting, since he can't really do an American accent, and here the digital doubling of him as twins often looks awkward. Parker and David Strathairn look completely lost in their roles, and the story is both predictable and never fully fleshed out. The ending is a bit of a cop-out, although at least it's not a cliffhanger. Parents dragged to this won't hate it, I suppose, but they'll certainly be bored. Wide release

Monday, February 11, 2008

Lights out?

Although the writers' strike seems on the verge of resolution, this past week's final pre-strike episode of Friday Night Lights looks like it very well may have been the show's last. NBC head Ben Silverman has recently sounded less than optimistic about the show's future, and online commentators are generally treating the episode as a de facto series finale. Of course, there are a number of ways the show could return - it could be picked up by another network (ESPN is mentioned most often) or even renewed by NBC, depleted of new scripted programming by the protracted strike. (Best Week Ever is mounting a preemptive Jericho-style campaign to save the show.) As much as I'd like to have hope, neither of these options seems all that likely to me; the show just isn't enough of a cult sensation (like, say, Arrested Development) to inspire a cable outlet to spend the money and mount the promotions necessary to build it a new audience, and NBC's Silverman has consistently shown a disregard for scripted programming and originality, instead satisfied with the (admittedly successful) likes of American Gladiators and Deal or No Deal. I'd still love to be proved wrong, of course.

Then again, maybe not. As much as I still love this show, this season has been frustratingly uneven, and even after the resolution of the unfortunate Landry-Tyra murder storyline, it's taken up plenty of unsuccessful plot threads. I remember at the end of the first season thinking that, despite how much I loved the show and wanted it to continue, if it ended right there it would have been a perfect resolution to a near-perfect season, and sometimes it's better for a show to go out on top like that. Who knows how shows like My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks would have degenerated had they continued past their single, wonderful seasons. So this year has been a mixed blessing, and the final episode I think exemplified both the show's strengths and its weaknesses. The subplot with Tami's ex-boyfriend (amusingly played by series creator Peter Berg) returning to town and tussling with Eric was silly and inconsequential, but demonstrated the depth and quality of the relationship between the Taylors, which has been this season's strongest element. Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler do consistently amazing work, their interplay a wealth of subtlety, humor and emotion that represents possibly the best acting being done on TV right now.

Then there was Jason Street's sudden impending fatherhood, which struck me as completely absurd and melodramatic when it was first announced, only to win me over by the end of the episode. This is another thing that FNL often does well, taking cliched soap-opera plots and handling them in an honest, human and straightforward way, thereby making them seem both believable and new. Yet the love triangle with Tim, Lyla and Lyla's Christian boyfriend still seems forced, Landry's relationship with Tyra is tainted by the ill-advised murder back story (although I'd love to see the consequences of his stupidly choosing Tyra over the much more genuine Jean), Smash's decision to go to Whitmore comes out of a really awkward racism storyline, and Matt's characterization is woefully inconsistent.

Despite all that, I'll be sad to see the show end if indeed it does, and especially in such an unresolved way. For all its bumps along the way, it's depicted small-town life and high school and the South in an honest, respectful and affecting way that few shows can match, and it'll be a shame that at least the effort to capture something like that may no longer be on the air.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Movies opening this week

Fool's Gold (Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, Donald Sutherland, Alexis Dziena, dir. Andy Tennant)
A.O. Scott's recent lament of the sorry state of the romantic comedy, pegged to the release of this movie, is maybe a little too they-don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to nostalgic for my taste, but certainly the genre has pretty much bottomed out, thanks in part to McConaughey and Hudson, both of whom were at one time promising actors. This movie isn't even particularly romantic, instead spending far too much time focused on its incomprehensible treasure-hunt plot (a scene in which the main characters explain how they found the treasure is mind-numbingly nonsensical), and indulging in much more violence than is appropriate for such a light diversion. Its pretty scenery, both in locations and actors, is all it has going for it, and even that gets old after nearly two hours. Wide release

Kurt Cobain About a Son (documentary, dir. AJ Schnack)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I saw this movie back in June at CineVegas, and it was one of my most highly anticipated films of the festival. I'm a huge Nirvana fan, but I found this movie to be a big disappointment. Fans won't find it particularly illuminating; the images that Schnack matches to Cobain's narration don't bolster anything that Cobain says, and although they are occasionally pretty they quickly become repetitive. I'm all for taking the documentary in more experimental, less conventional directions, but I think this is a case where a straightforward approach would have worked better. Opened limited Oct. 3; in Las Vegas this week

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Y: The last issue

I'm not sure when the last time was that I was so saddened by the end of a comics series, or when I had this much emotional investment in a series over the entire course of its run. My favorite series tend to be finite ones launched and carried throughout by a single writer (and often a single penciler as well): Transmetropolitan, The Maxx, Christopher Priest's Black Panther, Peter David's Supergirl, Promethea. Other than Transmet, though, I don't think I maintained the same level of personal attachment to those series all the way through to the end; a few went through creative declines and/or constant rumors of cancellation before coming to a close. But Y: The Last Man (written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn for the most part by Pia Guerra) stayed at almost the same exact level of quality throughout its 60-issue run, and I was almost always most excited to read it when it showed up in my weekly stack of comics. I probably took it for granted during these later issues, but reading this week's finale really brought home what a great series it was and how much I will miss it.

I wish I had time to re-read the entire series before tackling this issue; I recently traded in most of my single issues for collected editions, so it would have been particularly convenient. But I don't have time for that, although I'd like to make time in the future. So I did have to strain a little to remember which Beth was which, and what the name of the Russian cosmonaut was. But this isn't an issue about resolving plot points or tying up loose ends. Really, even the most recent arc wasn't about that, following as it did the supposed explanation of what caused the plague that wiped out the male population. This issue is basically an epilogue to the series, fast-forwarding to 60 years in the future, and offering a few glimpses of the intervening time. It's a nice way to wrap up a long-running serial, although I think it's more common on TV than in comics (the surprisingly good finale of Dawson's Creek springs to mind).

Although last issue's death of Agent 355 was a bit of a shocker and put a definitive period to one of the book's ongoing storylines, Vaughan doesn't offer any surprise developments or stunning revelations in this issue. We find out the final fates of certain characters, while the fates of others are left open. Most importantly, we see how the world evolves as Yorick grows old, and it's neither a reversion to the pre-plague status quo nor some bleak dystopia. Clearly no magic solution to the lack of males ever presents itself, but progress is slowly made, thanks largely to the efforts of the characters over the last 59 issues. Yorick in many ways saves the world, yet he loses two different loves of his life, and so he cuts himself off from the civilization that he helped rebuild. It's a sad ending for him but also a hopeful one, as in the last splash page we see he's off on some new, unknown adventure, never comfortable with his role as the savior of anything.

Guerra as always does excellent work here, and her artwork has always been low-key and realistic and thus rarely dazzling, but she deserves a lot of credit for what made this series work. The zany sci-fi concept never seemed less than believable because all the characters and everything that happened to them looked real. Even this issue's city of the future is understated while still looking plausibly futuristic. I hope she gets another assignment worthy of her talents, and I hope that Vaughan doesn't spend too much time working in Hollywood and give up on comics. I imagine it will be a while before another series comes along that grabs me so immediately and doesn't let go for more than five years.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Eye (Jessica Alba, Alessandro Nivola, Parker Posey, dir. David Moreau & Xavier Palud)
Both the 2003 Hong Kong original, directed by the Pang brothers, and Moreau and Palud's first movie, the French horror film Them, are better than this remake, even though neither of those is all that good. It's been a few years since I saw the original The Eye, but I remember it being rather mediocre and starting with a cool premise only to peter out into incoherence. This version has a much more definitive ending and a more linear plot, but that doesn't stop it from being incredibly boring and not scary at all. Alba remains a terrible actress (who thought it would be a good idea to give her voiceover narration?), and she can't pull off the actually somewhat interesting emotions of a blind woman granted the ability to see after 15 years. Since the emotional core of the film is worthless, it has to rely on the scares, and with no villain and a rather sketchy plot about putting a ghost to rest, they don't hold the movie together either. Plus, the whole concept of Alba's character being able to see ghosts with her new eyes is muddled immediately when she also hears and feels them, sometimes far more substantially. If the movie can't even keep its own internal logic for 10 minutes, it's hard for an audience to care. Wide release

Weirdsville (Scott Speedman, Wes Bentley, Taryn Manning, dir. Allan Moyle)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I guess it's admirable that CineVegas is expanding their Art House series beyond the obvious super-serious indie dramas, but this movie totally screams straight-to-video (check out the cast), and is pretty second-rate both as a stoner comedy and as a dark drug/crime story. The funny moments aren't as funny as the filmmakers think they are, and the serious moments are hard to take seriously. Points for trying, though, I guess. Opened limited Oct. 5; in Las Vegas this week

Youth Without Youth (Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
I have to admit that I am somewhat indifferent to Coppola, although I've seen only a few of his films. I admire the first two Godfathers more than I like them, and I couldn't stand Apocalypse Now when I saw it a number of years ago. I do, however, love The Conversation, and there are plenty of Coppola films that I haven't seen that I might really appreciate. But I wasn't exactly waiting on the edge of my seat for the filmmaker to return from his self-imposed hiatus, and aside from his legendary stature this is just a pretentious, confusing art film with bad old-age make-up and distractingly showy camerawork. It's magic realism, it's espionage, it's metaphysics, and finally it's just a mess, although Roth does his best to embody the elderly professor given the gift of youth. It's nice that Coppola has returned with ambition rather than just doing work for hire, but maybe he ought to calm down and try to tell a simple story first. I did like the stylishly retro opening credits, though. Opened limited Dec. 14; in Las Vegas this week