Match Point

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The Squid and the Whale

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        These two movies don't make an obvious pair. But they were paired in my mind because I needed to see both before I could put together my Top Ten List and my Oscar nominations. Each of them has had a lot of buzz. Neither of them was playing down here so I saw them both last weekend in DC. These films do have one thing in common: tennis. The first scene of each film takes place on a tennis court and each has a character who is a tennis pro. Both Match Point and The Squid and the Whale use tennis as a metaphor. In The Squid and the Whale, the tennis match is a metaphor for the lives of the characters. The first scene shows the four members of the family playing doubles, the father (Jeff Daniels), mother (Laura Linney), and their two sons (Jesse Eisenberg & Owen Kline). The metaphor is apt because early in the movie the parents separate, not very amicably, and begin to compete for the affections of their kids, who move back and forth between the parents literally and figuratively. In Match Point, the metaphor is of life itself. The comparison with tennis is that no matter how talented you are, you can only have so much control over your life and at some point luck takes over. In the first scene, a tennis ball hits the top of the net and bounces straight up. The side of the net on which the ball ultimately falls may determine the outcome of the match. This idea gives Match Point a similar feel to that of Sliding Doors, where the whole future life of the main character (Gwyneth Paltrow) depends on one innocuous incident. Match Point tells the story of a tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who gets a job teaching at a London tennis club. His first tennis student (Matthew Goode) introduces Rhys-Meyers to his sister (Emily Mortimer) and to his fiancee (Scarlet Johansson). Soon Rhys-Meyers is married to the sister and having an affair with the brother's fiancee. What a tangled web we weave....

        A big difference between Match Point and The Squid and the Whale is in their directors. Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed The Squid and the Whale is a neophyte who has never directed a film that didn't star Eric Stoltz. At the other extreme is the writer/director of Match Point, the cultural icon and author of 41 films, Woody Allen. The Squid and the Whale is just what you'd expect from a new writer/director of Indie films. It is interesting, has a nice cast including Laura Linney, but it's got a lot of rough edges and doesn't have a Hollywood ending. Match Point, on the other hand, is very unexpected. I don't believe that I ever would have guessed that this is a Woody Allen movie. It's not a comedy or even a romantic comedy. It's not set or shot in New York city and it is completely devoid of Woody-Allen-isms. It is set and shot in England and has a stellar British/Irish cast, in addition to Rhys-Meyers, Goode and Mortimer, which includes Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton as Mortimer's parents, and Ewen Bremner and James Nesbitt as the cops. And its ending? Hmmmm. Let me only say that it's not exactly Hollywood.

        The story of Match Point follows the timeworn plot where a man gets involved in a love triangle that threatens to bring his whole life crashing down on top of him. But this movie is so well made that it is wonderful to watch. The script, the direction and the acting are all really great, in fact, it is what we should expect from someone like Woody Allen despite his recent missteps. With the exception of Scarlet Johansson, who seems to be very smart in picking her movies (e.g., The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World, Lost in Translation), the cast of Match Point are not well known. But they are all the type of amazing character actors that the British Isles seems to have an infinite supply of. The faces of Rhys-Meyers (Bend it Like Beckham), Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing), Nesbitt (Waking Ned Devine, Millions), Bremner (Trainspotting) and Cox (The Bourne Supremacy, Troy, X2) will all seem familiar. But in Match Point, they really get to shine, particularly Rhys-Meyers and Mortimer. The story is very well put together, and it gets pretty tense as the end approaches and you try and figure out how Rhys-Meyers plans to deal with his wife and girlfriend and live to tell the tale.

        Where Match Point is smooth, The Squid and the Whale is rough. It really grinds out the story and grinds up its characters in the process. It does a nice but disturbing job of telling the story of a man and a woman who after 20 years together, try to survive the death spiral that they have pulled themselves and their children into. The cast is the American version of British character actors. These actors avoid the Hollywood blockbusters and seek out interesting parts in small Indie movies. Laura Linney has made a great career out this kind of role (You Can Count on Me, Kinsey). Jeff Daniels (Terms of Endearment, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Something Wild) has been mostly MIA lately while running his own regional theatre company. Jesse Eisenberg (Roger Dodger) is only 22 but is already an Indie veteran. Owen Kline, who plays the younger son is good as well. Oh and I almost forgot, the tennis pro in The Squid and the Whale is Billy Baldwin, playing an Ilie Nastase type, who ends up dating Linney. Daniels, for his part, ends up pursuing one of the students (Anna Paquin) in his English class. BTW, in case you are wondering, the title of this movie refers to a famous display at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.

        Both of these films are worth seeing. Match Point is the more polished and should be seen just to see what Woody Allen can do when he's not being Woody Allen, just being a great director. His actors, who are willing to kill to get into one of his films, say that he actually doesn't give them a lot of direction. Movies like The Squid and the Whale show why Indie movies are so rewarding. You get to see a bunch of good actors who are really out there and this leads to more real emotion on the screen. These two films have 10 Golden Globe nominations between them and should get a bunch of Oscar nominations as well. In particular, there are breakout performances by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, the man in the middle in Match Point, and by Jesse Eisenberg, the troubled older son in The Squid and the Whale. These movies are now in general release so you may be able to see them before they come out on Netflix.