Shortchanged

Two Bits swindles with syrupy sentimentality; The Convent turns out stone cold

Two Bits hopes to capture the dusty golden glow of a happy memory, but mostly it looks like a TV commercial for Pepsi. This is not surprising: The director, James Foley, has made music videos for Madonna. He's set his fable (of a boy, his grandfather, and the movies) in South Philadelphia in 1933, but his sense of Depression-era grittiness is artful to the point of being dainty. It not only doesn't look real, it looks beautiful -- invented, phony, Hollywood. Even the hobos don't have a hair out of place, and the young star, Jerry Barone, looks like a Gap Kids model in his hiking shorts, denim shirt, and boots.

It doesn't help that Alec Baldwin, with that pillow-talk purr, narrates the picture in a Wonder Years-style voice-over, the grown man observing his younger self. It's as if at any moment a mud-splashed Chevy Blazer will roll on-screen, accompanied by Baldwin's celebratory pitch. There is a thrilling lewdness in his voice that clashes with the innocent-childhood mood Foley struggles to establish.

Foley should have listened to that voice and let the movie go. Two Bits opens with every sign of being a coming-of-age film, but while it flirts with the worldly themes that turn boys into men, it shies away from them in the end. The only other choice is syrup, and Foley ladles it out liberally, apparently hoping to drown with luscious sweetness the painful fact that his movie accomplishes nothing.

The relationship between 12-year-old Gennaro (Barone) and his doddering grandfather, Gaetano (Al Pacino), is supposed to beat poignantly at the heart of the movie. Gennaro is certainly dutiful about bringing Grandpa a glass of water so he doesn't die of sunstroke in the garden (which is supposed to look shabby: In fact, it seems more like a Smith & Hawken floor display), but their affection for one another is thin.

Gennaro wants 25 cents from Grandpa so he can escape to La Paloma, the new air-conditioned movie house. Grandpa wants Gennaro to sit there while he gabs. Pacino is no longer the swarthy young rake of The Godfather, but he's a little too young to be playing an addled invalid. For one thing, he's got way too much hair; it's thick and glossy (Pantene for geriatrics?), and it looks as if the makeup artist tried to whiten it by emptying a sack of flour on Pacino's head.

Grandpa has promised to surrender the all-important quarter to Gennaro when he dies -- but in the midsummer heat this moment can't come soon enough. In the meantime, Gennaro scours the town in search of odd jobs -- some of them quite odd. He's propositioned in a coal bin by lonely Mrs. Bruna (Donna Mitchell), whose husband, a doctor, is a closeted homosexual. She offers Gennaro money; he declines and flees. Later, he changes his mind and returns, but it's too late: She has hanged herself.

The movie's central scene -- and only flicker of life -- is the grandfather's confession of a sexual dishonor in his youth. Gennaro is a little too young to grasp the meaning of this unhappy memory, but he's respectful, and at the old man's request he makes a conciliatory embassy to the woman, Guendolina (Joanna Merlin) -- now a hideous hag -- whom Gaetano had abused many years before. Conscience salved, Gaetano is free to die, and the quarter becomes Gennaro's.

Two Bits might have made a sharp, picaresque picture, but it blithely settles for a glowing stylishness instead of exploring a boy's growing knowledge of our slovenly world. It's a movie about a kid's blind obsession with movies -- a charmingly empty vessel, like a beautifully wrapped package with nothing inside.

In The Convent, John Malkovich plays Michael Padovic, an American professor in search of proof that Shakespeare was in fact a Sephardic Jew named Jacques Perez. Malkovich appears to be groggy and distracted throughout the film -- no doubt because he has been studying the script. Or maybe he has a plane to catch. The movie sounds as if it could be an intellectual treasure hunt, something like The Name of the Rose, but it turns out to be a pail of washed-out bombast.

The origins of Shakespeare scarcely figure in the picture beyond a few lines mumbled by Malkovich, whose pursed lips seem unusually thin and rubbery. The real action of the film is the creepy roundelay that begins when Prof. Padovic shows up at a convent, Arrabida, with his wife, Helene (Catherine Deneuve). Her aristocratic, Nordic beauty attracts the attention of the convent's guardian, Baltar (Luis Miguel Cintra), who arranges for the professor to be assisted in his researches -- and distracted -- by the beautiful young Piedade (Leonor Silveira).

There is an amusing, French farce-like scene of bedroom doors opening and slamming in the middle of the night. Otherwise, the picture is emptily self-important, an impressionistic blur of muttered lines and pretty Iberian scenery that's numbingly dull.

The director and screenwriter, 88-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, can't seem to coax much life from his actors; The Convent is supposed to smolder with hidden eroticism, but the players are stone cold. Deneuve is still commandingly lovely, but for the most part she keeps her arms folded across her chest and a knowing smile on her face. Helene doesn't seem thrilled about her marriage to Padovic, and no wonder: He acts as if he has been lobotomized. He does manage to stare longingly at Piedade, as Baltar intends, but it's the stare of a man who can't quite figure out what he's looking at.

At times Baltar threatens to invigorate the proceedings, but he never quite swings it. He's supposed to be some sort of devil; if only he had that kind of vigor. He laughs a good, diabolical laugh, but when he hits on Helene, his mannered courtliness is silly.

The soundtrack -- mostly screeching violins -- adds insult to injury. It's much more offensive than the dialogue. The characters don't have much to say, but at least they say it softly. The nerve-shattering music, on the other hand, seems intended to keep viewers awake. In that sense it's cruelly indispensable.

Two Bits opens Fri, Jan. 26, at the Embarcadero Center in S.F.

The Convent opens Fri, Jan. 26, at Opera Plazain

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