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A fragile eden: Kilcher and friends in The New World.

Paradise Lost
By Ann Morrow

The New World

Directed by Terrence Malick

The New World, the first film from Terrence Malick since The Thin Red Line six years ago, is his most sublime film since Days of Heaven in 1978. Based on the intertwined destinies of Captain John Smith and princess Pocahontas, The New World is not a biography, but a reinterpretation that condenses, shuffles, and reverses the facts to achieve a multilayered story that expands on their extraordinary lives with breathtaking assurance and symmetry.

Before his voyage to Jamestown in 1607, John Smith was a talented soldier who escaped from captivity during his sojourn as a mercenary in Europe. Pocahontas was the favorite (out of a hundred or so children) of King Powhatan, a powerful tyrant over a confederation of conquered tribes. According to Smith’s writings, his relationship with Pocahontas was a flirtatious but abiding friendship. If their circumstances had been less star-crossed, Pocahontas undoubtedly would have wanted to marry Smith, and he most likely would have declined: His only passion was the new land of America (he never married).

In The New World, Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher) are portrayed as both their true-life selves and as representatives of an ideal: Smith, a courageous and visionary leader, is seen through her eyes as a strange and virile god from across the sea. Smith sees her as the embodiment of his dream of a new world, peaceable, beautiful and abundant in virtue. Whether or not they are lovers is seductively left to the imagination, as is Smith’s initiation ceremony into the Powhatans (Is he being adopted or held hostage?).

The film’s dual reality is ravishingly created through the cinematography (with Malick’s characteristic use of natural light), score (by James Horner), and especially, Malick’s spare and poetic writing, which alternates between dialogue and narration. The founding of Jamestown is portrayed as an impressionistic culture clash that begins with the image of iron helmets and velvet chapeaus bobbing jarringly in an endless field of tall grass. Both native and English settlements are exaggerated to hallucinatory degrees, while the battle sequences are surreal in their barbarity.

Smith’s idyll with Pocahontas is thwarted not only by warfare, but by Smith’s realization that the new world is not quite the utopia that he first saw it as, and that the colony he is struggling to establish will eventually be the destruction of her people. “Don’t trust me,” he says after Pocahontas risks her father’s ire by bringing food to the starving outpost. While Smith is in constant conflict with the other colonists and captains, Pocahontas moves serenely through her destiny, praying often to her mother, a dual deity of her deceased mother and Mother Earth.

Most of The New World is told through the use of the natural world—benevolent Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) refers to the natives as “the naturals”—and, as such, it may the most beautiful film ever made. The river, the trees, and cornfields all take on a life force of their own. After Smith’s departure, Pocahontas meets John Rolf (Christian Bale), a kindly farmer who understands the land and thus becomes a successful tobacco planter. In the film’s most moving analogy, Pocahontas sees Rolf as a tree whose shade she can rest in.

Farrell and Bale do some of their most subtle work here, and the eloquence of Kilcher’s physicality is a continual astonishment, even after she is converted to English ways and confined to English gardens. Kilcher’s radiance is the key to the film’s haunting final sequence: Beginning with the conflicts of many men, The New World ends with the fulfillment of one woman.

Double Fault

Match Point

Directed by Woody Allen

A mere change of scenery does not an original concept make, as viewers of Woody Allen’s latest film, Match Point, will no doubt discover. Forsaking Manhattan’s intelligentsia and ritzy milieu for London’s trendy Belgravia, Allen provides the same crew of obnoxious, neurotic characters with upper-crusty English accents. He does nothing to breathe new life into what is essentially a reworking of the themes of both the director’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Irish tennis pro Chris Wilton, who parlays natural talent, good looks, and an ingratiating manner to gain entry into the wealthy family of his newfound best friend Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). Chris utterly charms Mr. and Mrs. Hewett (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton), who find him a nondescript job at their unspecified company—a position that provides him a car, driver, expense account, and the opportunity to say things like “right-o, first thing tomorrow” on the telephone. And, almost as an aside, he enchants Tom’s naïve, imbecilic sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer doing an impression of nails on a chalkboard). But into every life, even one as charmed as Chris’, a little rain must fall, which must be Allen’s rationale in writing the character of Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a would-be actress and Tom’s fiancée. One look at her blonde insouciance has Chris all hot and bothered to bed her, although we’re not quite sure if it’s truly lust or just one-upmanship on his friend.

Trouble is, the entirety of Match Point meanders on without giving us a clear idea of what Chris’ end objective is. Is he an out-and-out scammer, or merely the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck? Does he genuinely like the Hewett family, or are they merely stepping-stones? Is Chris’ adultery with Nola about two outsiders finding orgasmic peace within each other, or are they both out to settle some hidden score?

Moreover, should we even care?

As is too often the case with Allen’s films, the answer is an unequivocal no. Nearly 80 percent of the movie labors on with Chris and Chloe visiting trendy art galleries, or Chloe bewailing her inability to get pregnant. Tom, possibly the only character approaching likeability, is barely seen after providing Chris with the proper introductions, but even he has to suffer through Allen’s approximations of what a proper young Londoner would say (think something along the lines of “Dude, we’ve got some serious cocktailing to do” spoken in the dulcet tones of Windsor). Nola is a complete enigma. This could have as much to do with Johansson’s opaque reading of the character as the script, in which Nola’s only transformation makes one wonder just how far the director’s psyche, in terms of male-female relationships, has come in the wake of the whole Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi Previn disaster.

By the time the film introduces characters who make us sit up and take notice—detectives with real Birmingham or Scottish accents and something approaching brains and normalcy—the movie’s nearly over. The symbolism of tennis balls hovering over a net is repeated ad nauseum, culminating in a final twist. While that twist is something of a grim surprise, it’s too little, too late.

—Laura Leon

A Family Saga With Teeth

Underworld Evolution

Directed by Len Wiseman

The sequel to Underworld continues the epic “battle of the Balkans” between two tainted family bloodlines: vampires and werewolves. The last saga ended with, apparently, a lot of dead werewolves and vampires. (I didn’t see it.) It also ended with the vampire heroine Selene (Kate Beckinsale) going off with her new boyfriend, werewolf-vampire hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman).

You don’t need to have seen the first film to get this one. Most of the plot of the first film was based on a lie revealed at its climax; that left the filmmakers to go back and tell the “real” story in installment number two.

In other words, it’s not like The Matrix or Star Wars.

Filmmakers never tire of vampires and werewolves, and why should they? The blood-sucking undead and the interior-beast unleashed always make fun. The vamps are traditional; it’s the werewolves (“lycans”) who are really cool. The rabid monsters are truly from the id.

The story revolves around attempts to free the long-imprisoned First Werewolf, and the equally strenuous effort to prevent this. The action is relentless, a mix of 21st-century explosions and 19th-century monster lore. If it’s a not-quite-perfect match, things go by quickly enough so it doesn’t matter.

As a romantic action figure, WB- network hatchling Speedman—he was Felicity’s boy toy—is as compelling as a damp rag. The filmmakers grasp this, and avoid giving him good lines, or many scenes that aren’t digitally enhanced. This also hurts the sex scene between Selene and Michael: They’re supposed to be superhuman animals, not pretty models rolling about in soft focus.

The other actors, all Brits, have stringy hair, snarl a lot and are interchangeable. The two exceptions are the reliable Derek Jacobi, who brings the requisite “Sir” gravitas to the father of the two diseased family lines, and Bill Nighy. Though Nighy’s ultra-evil character was sliced and diced in the first film, he returns in a pleasingly bloody flashback.

Thus the dramatic weight of the film rests on Beckinsale’s latex-sheathed shoulders. She’s up to the task, with the swagger and intensity needed to register as a convincing action hero. She doesn’t really have much to work with, but Beckinsale makes Selene interesting anyway; this proves, again, that’s it’s better to hire a decent actor who happens to be a babe, rather than hire a “babe” and hope they can fake the acting.

—Shawn Stone

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