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On movies: Old trick from Woody Allen; new look at John Lennon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2010 -The name of physicist Werner Heisenberg is tossed casually into the mix of "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Woody Allen's latest comedy, and indeed the characters do seem to bounce around London like random subatomic particles, their pathways and points of intersection unpredictable.

There is nothing wrong with this premise - the Coen brothers made a great comedy about the uncertainty principle with last year's "A Serious Man." The problem with "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" is that the characters seem tired and the surprises not very surprising.

The two principal male characters are both going through a version of the mid-life crisis, a state that, as Allen knows, can suddenly seize a man at any point between diapers and death. This is familiar Woody Allen territory, perhaps a little too familiar.

Roy (Josh Brolin) is a blocked writer who once published a promising first novel and has spent the ensuing few years fretting about his second. Among the many ways he finds to waste his time are blaming his problems on his wife (Naomi Watts) and having long, languid lunches with a beautiful woman who has not yet grown weary of his desperate line of self-serving bull. The other woman is played with an appealing naturalness by Freida Pinto of "Slumdog Millionaire."

The second male protagonist is Roy's father-in-law, Alfie - a great name for a classic aging philanderer, here played with his usual panache by Anthony Hopkins. Alfie, who spends hours at the gym trying to outrun the reaper, has just thrown over his age-appropriate wife Helena for a young blond "actress" he met through an illegal commercial transaction involving his money and her body. The "actress" is played with broad humor by a curvy Brit listed in the credits as Lucy Punch. Another great name.

The engine of the plot is provided by Alfie's discarded wife - Roy's mother-in-law -- who is played with a wonderful flair for British ditz by Gemma Jones. Helena turns out to be the only person in the movie who actually has any money in the bank.

Helena has fallen into the clutches of a fortune teller. She believes everything this woman tells her, and from time to time, as chance would have it, the fortune teller gives Helena good advice. The fortune teller plays such a pivotal role in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" that it might be worthwhile to read what Woody Allen told the New York Times in an interview on Sept. 15:

"I was interested in the concept of faith in something. This sounds so bleak when I say it, but we need some delusions to keep us going. And the people who successfully delude themselves seem happier than the people who can't. I've known people who have put their faith in religion and in fortune tellers. So it occurred to me that that was a good character for a movie: a woman who everything had failed for her and, all of a sudden, it turned out that a woman telling her fortune was helping her. The problem is, eventually, she's in for a rude awakening."

Indeed, although the awakening turns out to be a lot ruder for the other characters than it does for Helena.

Half a dozen years ago, for financial reasons, Woody Allen began making movies in Europe. The director, now 74, seemed to have experienced something of a revitalization, beginning with "Match Point," released in 2005, and reaching a pinnacle two years ago with the delightfully energetic, sweet-tempered "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." In that context, the new movie has to be considered a disappointment, although it has its amusing moments - the denouement involving Roy's second novel has to be considered a classic Woody Allen moment of fate wagging its fickle finger at the foolishness of man.

Opens Friday, Oct. 15

'Nowhere Boy'

John Lennon, who would have been 70 years old this month, was raised mostly by an aunt. She took him in as a baby when his mother, deserted by Lennon's father, could not cope emotionally with raising children.

"Nowhere Boy," based on a memoir by Lennon's half-sister, tells the story of his mid-teens, when he re-established contact with his mother and met Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

Aaron Johnson plays the lead role. At times, Johnson tries too hard to convey emotions with grimaces, but he mostly succeeds in showing us what seems to be an authentic version of the young Lennon, by turns sweet and sarcastic, with the underlying bitterness and wounded cynicism that would color his life and music. With a good supporting cast that includes Kristin Scott Thomas as the aunt and Anne-Marie Duff as the mother, director Sam Taylor-Wood tells the story clearly, and implies that a certain amount of sexuality was inherent in the relationship between mother and son without getting icky about it.

Toward the end, the movie sometimes descends into melodrama, but people interested in John Lennon will probably enjoy the movie, and learn from it.

Opens Friday, Oct. 15

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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