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Exploring New Frontiers

Woody relocates to London while Malick discovers America

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MATCH POINT

Woody Allen has spent huge chunks of his career borrowing from such masters as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, but as I watched his latest picture, Match Point, the director that repeatedly came to mind was George Romero.

Like a zombie from Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Allen keeps rising from the dead, and no bullet to the brain -- or, more accurately, dismal reception to one of his lesser pictures -- has been potent enough to bring him down permanently. Since the end of the 1980s, every time critics were ready to write off Allen as a has-been, he would rebound with something on the order of Crimes and Misdemeanors or Bullets Over Broadway. But for the past decade, his output has been so inconsistent -- and his resume littered with so many out-and-out duds (Celebrity, Hollywood Ending) -- that scribes were positive his imagination had finally run its course.

Perhaps that's why the critical reception to Match Point has been so pronounced. The picture represents Allen's best work since 1996's overlooked Everyone Says I Love You, but it hardly belongs in the pantheon reserved for the likes of Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Yet the hosannas are understandable: It's nice to have Allen back again, even if it turns out to be only for a short visit.

In most regards, Match Point is miles removed from the typical Woody Allen film -- both literally and figuratively. Forsaking his beloved New York City, Allen has made a film that's set -- and shot -- in England. Also gone is another mainstay: the nebbish protagonist, generally played by Allen himself but on occasion portrayed by a younger actor like John Cusack or Jason Biggs.

Clearly, the leading character here is no nervous, self-effacing nerd. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is handsome, charismatic and secure enough to know what he wants out of life. A tennis pro employed at a posh London club, he makes the acquaintance of dashing rich kid Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), who then proceeds to introduce Chris to his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris likes Chloe but he apparently likes her family's wealth even more. So it's only a matter of time before the pair are engaged and Chloe's father (Brian Cox) is offering Chris a job at one of his firms.

Chris' life in the fast lane, however, encounters a speed bump in the curvaceous shape of Tom's American fiancée, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Nola, an aspiring actress armed with her own set of neuroses (in short, the character most recognizable from the standard Allen flick), finds Chris attractive but initially is able to counter his advances with mild flirtatious bantering. Eventually, the two engage in an adulterous tryst that has the potential to bring down Chris' carefully constructed lifestyle.

Allen may have caught a late-night cable showing of Fatal Attraction before embarking on his screenplay, but more likely he was inspired by classics of both film and literature. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is an obvious source -- at one point, Chris is even spotted reading it -- but so are Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (filmed in 1951 by George Stevens as A Place In the Sun) and John Braine's Room At the Top (adapted by Jack Clayton in 1959). Given these reference points, it's no surprise Match Point finds Allen in a contemplative mood, examining the tug-of-war between love and lust and allowing his protagonist plenty of opportunities to mull over the degree to which blind luck shapes and informs our lives.

Match Point is exceedingly well-written and exquisitely performed (Johansson stands out in her best performance to date), yet what causes it to come up a hair short of true greatness is that, for all its dissimilarities to past Allen films, it still ends up largely playing like a remake of the "Crimes" half of Crimes and Misdemeanors, the section of the two-story film that focused on the adulterous duo portrayed by Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won't specify exactly where the films line up and where they deviate, but suffice to say that this new drama could have offered more surprises and still retained Allen's thematic stance. But no matter: For the most part, Match Point delivers on its premise, and it's gratifying to see Woody back in the game.

THE NEW WORLD

Terrence Malick isn't in the business of making movies -- and that's not just because The New World is only his fourth big-screen outing in the past 33 years. It seems almost incidental that Malick uses actors and scripts and props while creating his works, because what he's producing are visual poems. Other filmmakers have on occasion adopted this method -- Werner Herzog, Jane Campion, Robert Flaherty, Godfrey Reggio -- but in some respects Malick is the most slavishly devoted to it, for better or worse.

With The New World, it's mostly for the worse. As always, the cameraman is the star, and ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki might well score an Oscar nod for his masterful visions on celluloid. Yet any ambience created in tandem by Lubezki and Malick repeatedly dissipate in the face of the plodding treatment of fascinating material: the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and, more specifically, the relationship between lithe Native-American girl Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and sensitive English settler John Smith (Colin Farrell).

As a look at the despoiling of untamed territory by brutish Europeans, this can't touch Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God -- heck, it's not even up to the shaky standards of Hector Babenco's At Play In the Fields of the Lord. Hitchcock once cracked that actors should be treated like cattle, but Malick seems to have adopted that statement as philosophy: His indifference to the accomplished performers milling around the set (Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale among them) is so apparent that one almost wonders why he didn't just cast this with mannequins. He seems equally bored with prose, considering some of the dead-weight exclamations uttered by various characters. With each subsequent picture, Malick seems less interested in connecting with anyone save himself, meaning that The New World is inferior to The Thin Red Line (1998), which was inferior to Days of Heaven (1978), which was inferior to Badlands (1973).

To even attempt to compare The New World with Disney's animated Pocahontas would be a useless exercise in futility, far beyond apples and oranges. But I will say this: Where's a mischievous raccoon when you really need one?

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