Remember The Alamo? I mean the old 1960 movie, with John Wayne lumbering around in a coonskin cap, lots of absurdly noble heroes staring off into space and more patriotic speechifying than in any movie besides the Duke's other self-directed project, The Green Berets.
Well, now there's a new version of The Alamo, but don't count on hearing any rousing speeches in it. The 2004 version includes very few inspirational moments at all, and the closest we get to a noble hero, absurd or otherwise, is Billy Bob Thornton, stepping into the Duke's shoes as Davy Crockett. Come to think of it, that is pretty absurd.
The new Alamo doesn't seem overly interested in glorifying American legends or in debunking them. Instead, it merely plods along from scene to scene, ambivalent towards its characters, and barely glued together in a way that indicates nothing so much as being the product of too many cooks.
For those unfamiliar with the original movie or the chapter in American history on which it's based, here's the story. The Alamo tells the tale of a small band of ragtag Texans who for 13 days in 1836, holed up in a ruined San Antonio church and held off the attacks of the much larger and better-equipped army of Mexico. Among the defenders of the Alamo were American legends Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie (the knife guy), both of whom met their ends there. Sam Houston, another famous figure, was on the sidelines as well, waiting to pick up the pieces.
The new version of The Alamo spends time with all these people and more, resulting in too many characters vying for our attention, and with most of them coming off so badly or blandly that's it hard to care about any of them. At first glance, the film even seems a little reactionary, as if the main reason it exists is to chip away at everything about the original movie it's supposedly remaking.
Jason Patrick's Bowie spends most of the movie sweating and hacking his lungs out in bed, before mustering up the will for a final heroic gesture that comes out of nowhere. Colonel William Barris Travis (Patrick Wilson) doesn't seem to do much of anything except serve as a fussy foil for the rough and tumble Bowie. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) is a drunken lout for the movie's first 20 minutes, disappears for almost two hours, and then reappears for the film's finale as some sort of avenging warrior.
Thornton's Crockett spends a lot of time looking soulful and conflicted, and some of the movie's better scenes are his (and, I suspect, the remaining evidence of former writer-director John Sayles' participation in this project). Crockett prefers "David" to "Davy," wears his famous cap just because it's expected of him, and is all too aware of the gulf between his outsized public persona and the reality of the man he is.
We spend more time with the Mexicans, too. The movie follows PC Hollywood's new golden rule that even enemies can't be villains, and, while big, bad General Santa Anna comes off as a strutting, snaggle-toothed despot, The Alamo makes it clear that his men are every bit as human as their Texan counterparts. Never one to go out on a limb, though, the movie studiously avoids weighing in on to whom Texas really belongs.
The problem with The Alamo is ultimately that it just doesn't seem to have a handle on what sort of movie it wants to be. It wavers between traditional period adventure, cynical, revisionist history and meandering, multi-character mini-series. The action scenes aren't very good either.
The Alamo isn't the worst remake opening this week, but it's surely the most boring. Walking Tall nabs that dubious worst-remake-of-the-week honor hands down, but in just 75 minutes, it gets people excited and emotionally involved in ways that The Alamo can't manage in almost twice that amount of time.
There's something to be said for a movie that makes its emotional agenda clear and takes the audience right along for the ride. And brainless as that other remake's notion of absolute good versus absolute evil is, this wishy-washy Alamo could have taken a few lessons from it.
Global Stew, Part Deux This is the final weekend of The Second Annual Tampa International Film Festival, and any self-respecting cinephile should proceed posthaste to Madstone Theaters to gobble up as many of these cinematic treats as possible.
The festival's "cinema for a new world" continues on Thursday, April 8, with a 5 p.m. screening of the Czech fable Hanele, followed at 7 p.m. by Under the Sun, Colin Nutley's Oscar-nominated romance about a middle-age Swedish farmer and his housekeeper. The evening concludes with a 9:15 screening of The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, an imaginative and entertaining documentary about a filmmaker's magician-acrobat ancestor.
The schedule for Friday, April 9, begins at 5 p.m. with a "Best of Fest" program, followed at 7 p.m. with Destination (La Destinazione) an austere, engaging account of a young carbinieri (policeman) who becomes embroiled in murder and local passions in rural Sardinia. The film oozes authenticity, no doubt a mark of director Pierro Danna's years of working in this region as an actual carbinieri. Then, at 9:15, there's Luck, an eccentric and smartly written tale of obsessive love in early '70s Canada.
Saturday, April 10 is the festival's final day, and it's a great one. Things kick off with a 4 p.m. free screening of a "surprise film" that I've sworn not to divulge (but I am allowed to tell you that it's well worth checking out — and the price is right). Next up, at 6, is the Florida premiere of one of my very favorite films of the entire festival — the delightful Hungarian oddity Hukkle.
Hukkle, an incredible blast of cinematic imagination from first-time director Gyorgy Pálfi, is both minimalist and elaborate. The film is nearly indescribable — part whodunnit, part beast-eat-beast nature doc, and more than a bit like one of those old Rube Goldberg contraptions where every unlikely moving part affects every other part. There are no words here at all, although sound is crucial, and the film's string of interlocking sight gags sometimes makes it seem like the movie that Punch Drunk Love should have been.
The festival bids adieu at 8 p.m. with Dolls, filmmaker Takeshi Kitano's exquisitely visual treatment of a famous Japanese tragedy about two young lovers torn apart by an arranged marriage. In Kitano's version, the story is presented first as an elaborately conceived Bunraku puppet play, and then by dolls who magically come to life and wander the world seeking redemption. The movie can be maddeningly enigmatic, but it's never less than heartbreakingly lovely, and I can't think of a better way to end this most thought-provoking and beauty-promoting of film festivals.
Single admission tickets cost $7, $5 for students and seniors. Festival passes of 10 tickets cost $50. Madstone Theaters, Old Hyde Park Village, 1609 W. Swann Ave., Tampa (813-258-4646). For more information, visit http://tampafilmfest.com or call 253-3333, ext. 3425.
Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at [email protected], or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.