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Lucky strikes 

Woody Allen’s latest explores luck in London.

UNLUCKY: Rhys-Meyers, Johansson.
  • UNLUCKY: Rhys-Meyers, Johansson.

“Match Point,” the new Woody Allen film, has only one scene that remotely qualifies as funny, and even that is the result of physical comedy, as a character fumbles with a shotgun as he prepares to shoot someone. That’s by way of saying, don’t expect a lot of laughs.

Allen himself doesn’t appear or have one of the actors “play him” in the movie, and there is less breezy, witty dialogue than in his usual work. This is the first time he set his action in London, and it is as if Allen allowed the dreary, overcast English weather and the cold, reserved British temperament to determine the mood of the film.

That’s not to say it’s bad or uninteresting. But it’s a little less enjoyable and somewhat depressing.

You see, this is a story about luck. Some people have it, some people don’t. We’re supposed to assume that Chris Wilton (played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) has it. A former tennis star, he takes a job giving tennis lessons at a ritzy London club and on the first day meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). Tom invites him to the opera that night, where Chris meets Tom’s family, including his beautiful sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Soon Chris is on the fast track, with Chloe as his girlfriend and a new career at the company owned by Tom and Chloe’s father.

But then Chris meets, and is instantly attracted to, Tom’s girlfriend, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an American actress who has no luck trying to land a job in London. Will Chris throw away his perfect new life for a chance to be with the unlucky Nola? Sure looks that way, until Nola disappears after her engagement to Tom falls through.

The story picks up after Chris and Chloe marry, when Chris sees Nola by chance at a museum. What ensues is a series of events that become increasingly convoluted and improbable, culminating in the darkest possible outcome. All of the actors are competent, but no one turns out a memorable performance.

Allen has a certain convention that he repeats with every film. Introduce a theme — usually based on a metaphor, catchy phrase or both — delicately refer to that theme throughout the story, and then repeat it at the end.

He does that in “Match Point,” too, but without his usual subtlety or charm. The drama is allegorical rather than nuanced, and you feel browbeaten by the time you walk out of the theater (repeat after me: It’s better to be lucky than good!), as if Allen didn’t trust you to absorb the lesson on your own.

There’s something to be said for being good, too, but you won’t find it in “Match Point.”

— By Warwick Sabin



The race card, again

It’s telling that, no matter how hard we try, the topic of race refuses to be swept under the great American rug. Every time you think the issue might be getting close to some kind of solution (or at least a truce) it bubbles up again: in politics, in film, in art. It’s the thing we all have resolved to ignore, so therefore we’re cursed to revisit it forever.

The latest film to venture into this increasingly taboo territory — the land of black and white, and what happens when those two collide — is “Freedomland.” At times razor sharp and at others as plodding, preachy and ponderous as an “After School Special,” it adds up to a rather ineffective swipe at the topic of racial inequality. Still, in a country where the topic is ignored more often than not, anything is welcome.

Here, Julianne Moore plays Brenda Martin, a reformed junkie who staggers into an emergency room, bloodied from a carjacking. Soon on the case is Det. Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), a no-nonsense cop whose beat is a nearby housing project that borders the white, suburban town of Dempsy. After Brenda tells Council that her son was in the car when it was stolen, however, the crime becomes more than a simple car theft. With a white child missing and Brenda telling the cops that the black car thief fled in the direction of the projects, the Dempsy cops soon come out in full force, issuing a curfew in the black neighborhood and generally harassing the hell out of its residents. Council, however, is coming to a very different conclusion. With the help of a crusading mother who once lost a child (Edie Falco) and always at odds with Brenda’s volatile cop brother Danny Martin (Rob Eldard), Council works his way around to the truth about what happened to Brenda and her child.

“The Maltese Falcon” this ain’t. If you’ve seen the trailer for “Freedomland” (not to mention the national media’s obsession with pretty white girls gone missing) you probably know how it’s all going to turn out, and it’s not the feel-good story of the year. And while I’d like to tell you that getting there is suspenseful, it isn’t. Jackson’s detective (while well played) is about as intuitive as a frozen rump roast, and halfway through the movie, we’re dragged — for no particular reason, it seems — out to Freedomland, an abandoned orphanage that gives the movie its name. There is a bit of a surprise in the how and the why everything ended up the way it did, but other than that, this is a D student trying to masquerade as valedictorian.

Still, as we said, we’ve got to give the creators of “Freedomland” a thumbs up for picking at something that not many are willing to de-scab these days, and the sight of blacks corralled in their own neighborhood by hordes of white cops is enough to give you chills. It’s not enough to save this one, though.

— By David Koon



Where’s the comedy?

On the one hand in current moviedom, we’ve got the slapstick “Pink Panther,” the Steve Martin vehicle where he does stupid-funny stuff in rekindling the old series made famous by Peter Sellers. You can’t help but laugh at some of this stuff, as idiotic as a lot of it is.

On the other hand, you’ve got the smart, subtle, nearly disguised comedy of writer-director Albert Brooks, which he brings us again in “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.”

It’s such a non-funny title, Sony tried to change it, so Brooks took his film to another distributor.

Brooks has had funnier films –- we enjoyed “Defending Your Life,” “Modern Romance.” This film seems to have more message than comedy, and that message is that communication, or the lack of it, is what is screwing up this world right now.

Some of the funniest stuff in Brooks’ films is Brooks poking fun at himself, which he (playing himself) starts out doing immediate in getting rejected for a new Penny Marshall project. With nothing on the horizon and a wife who buys big on eBay, Brooks takes a government assignment to find out what makes Muslim people laugh. Finding what makes someone laugh, Brooks is told, is the president’s suggestion on how to best learn about that person.

So, the target countries for Brooks and his project are India (which has a significant Muslim population among the Hindus) and Pakistan. Brooks gets in a few zings at the government, at the outsourcing of telephone centers to India and at the paranoia of feuding nations. The Indian people recognize him mainly from the voice he provided in “Finding Nemo.” He puts on a free comedy show in New Delhi that totally bombs (very painful, rather than funny, to watch); he uses the same material in a clandestine meeting with some Pakistani comics and has them roaring with laughter. He has to teach his Indian assistant the meaning of sarcasm, which she soon learns and uses on him.

Ultimately, the message of overcoming our communication differences comes through, but it’s not a laugh riot.

What is a revelation, however, is Sheetal Sheth as Brooks’ Indian assistant. The gorgeous New Jersey-ite seems, according to her resume, to have been typecast most of her short career as playing someone of Indian descent. She’s terrific here.

“Looking for Comedy” is playing at Market Street Cinema.

— By Jim Harris

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