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Friday, Aug. 29, 2008

'Youth Without Youth'

Coppola totally uncorked


Ever since he first hit it big with "The Godfather" way back in 1972, Francis Ford Coppola has made noises about saying goodbye to Hollywood, taking the money and making small, uncompromising independent films. With the exception of "The Conversation" (1974), that never happened, with Coppola seemingly addicted to big budgets and epic filmmaking, from "The Cotton Club" (1984) through "The Godfather Part 3" (1990) and "Dracula" (1992).

Youth Without Youth Rating: (2 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Tim Roth gets forever young in Coppola's latest movie

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: English
Opens Aug. 30, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Now age 69, Coppola finally seems to be getting around to it. Having made a bundle on his Napa Valley vineyards — Coppola's Rosso is not a bad bottle to crack open over dinner — he is pouring it back into filmmaking. The director has said in interviews that he can now afford to lose several million dollars on a film every couple of years. Let's hope he's correct, because judging from "Youth Without Youth," his first wine-financed project, losing money seems to be the prognosis.

Adapted from a novel by noted philosopher and author Mircea Eliade, "Youth Without Youth" is an example of what happens when that tightrope walker known as artistic ambition falls into the abyss known as artistic pretension. Portentous, philosophical dialogue is delivered in absurd, ridiculous situations; the mixed Euro-accents of the cast make every single line ring with absolute falsity.

The film begins in Bucharest, 1938, where the aged, bitter professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) is struck by lightning while on the way to end his life. In a twist of irony, after recovering from his burns, he discovers the aging process has reversed course, and he's becoming younger and more virile. He also has the ability to absorb knowledge from books just by touching them. (But no — he doesn't gain any amazing superpowers to fight crime with.)

The Nazis, who are conducting experiments to create a race of supermen, try to kidnap Dominik, and he moves around Europe to elude them. The film gets more convoluted as Dominik has conversations with himself; either he's schizo, or talking to an evil doppelganger from a parallel universe self, or . . . lord only knows. Read your Eliade to find out. All we learn here is that Coppola can't do David Lynch.

Dominic winds up meeting a woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) who looks just like his long-dead girlfriend and — surprise! — also is struck by lightning and starts regressing through past lives back to the dawn of time. (Shades of "Altered States".)

Now I don't know about you, but if the woman I'd gone to bed with woke up in the dead of night thrashing about like a rabid animal, with wild eyes, hissing and speaking in tongues, I don't think I'd be sitting there stroking my chin, saying, "Hmmm, was that Babylonian or Sumerian she was speaking?" In fact, I don't think I'd be sleeping in the same room, let alone the same bed.

But that's exactly what Dominic does when his girlfriend freaks out in the film. It's stuff like this — little things like an utter lack of self-preservation — that take you right out of a film, killing your suspension of disbelief like an anvil on a coyote's head.

"What do we do with time?" asks Dominik's doctor. "That question expresses the supreme ambiguity of the human condition." Right. I don't know about you, but there are far better ways to spend it than on feeble-minded magical-realism films like this. An unmitigated failure.

Perhaps the polar opposite of "Youth Without Youth' "s pretentiousness is the "Best of Bollywood," a selection of three films featuring masala movie superstar Shah Rukh Khan. Bollywood movies rarely make claims to art, and these three — "Don," "Kaal Ho Na Ho," and "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" — are no exceptions. But think of them like a date with Paris Hilton: entirely vapid, but probably a lot of fun.

"Don" (2006) is exemplary of the new Bollywood; starting to look and feel much more like Hollywood product, right down to the big-beat score for the action sequences, but with a few strategically placed song and dance numbers embedded within. In "Don," Khan gets to play two roles: the international criminal mastermind Don and the paan-chewing bumpkin who's a dead ringer for the bad guy and is called upon by the police to impersonate him. A suave, dangerous ladykiller and naive, earnest clown — two Khans for the price of one. Khan sails by on charm alone, and you almost expect him to wink at the camera at certain points. Co-star Kareena Kapoor's seduction of Don, set to a killer Bollywood song, is incredibly aggressive, showing just how much times have changed in Indian cinema. We still, however, don't get to see them kiss.

"Kaal Ho Na Ho" (2003) is Bollywood set in the "exotic" USA; it's a classic Bolly love triangle, comedy and tearjerker all in the same film. (At 3 hours plus, they have the time for it.) Preity Zinta plays a serious girl living with her family in the USA, working in her mother's restaurant while studying for an MBA. Her nebbishy classmate (Saif Ali Khan) has a crush on her, but she's swept away by her fresh-from-India neighbor, played by Khan, whose gregarious nature charms everyone he meets. Alas, he is burdened with a terrible secret. . . . Despite having two of the silliest musical numbers of any recent Indian film — a bhangra version of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" and the Village People-go-Bolly nightmare of "It's Time To Disco" — this is a genuinely moving film and perhaps Khan's best performance.

"Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" (2001) has not screened as of this writing, but promises nearly four hours of Bollywood pleasure, with Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Kajol and Hrithik Roshan comprising a Bolly dream cast.

With their opulent costumes and over-the-top visual spectacle, all these films are well worth experiencing on the big screen.


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