The stars shine in Stone, but Woody Allen stumbles with his latest

by Mark Burger

Stone (opening Friday) is a moody meditation on guilt and morality that moves at its own pace, with the characters gradually developing as the story progresses. Directed by John Curran from a screenplay by Winston- Salem’s own Angus MacLachlan, Robert De Niro stars as Jack Mabry, a parole officer edging into retirement after an unremarkable career. One of his last cases is that of Gerald Creeson, better known as “Stone” (Edward Norton), a convicted arsonist determined to get out of prison after a lengthy stretch, having set the fire to cover up the mur der of his grandparents by.

If Stone himself can’t manipulate or cajole Jack by preying on his insecurities, then he’ll arrange for his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to manipulate Jack in her own way. Doing so causes unexpected repercussions for all of them.

Stone is more ambitious and less conventional in its storytelling than its advertising would imply. There are elements of suspense and film noir and the potential for violence, yet it doesn’t play by rules other than its own. The film is a tough sell in any case, although not an unworthy or unrewarding one.

The story offers its four principal characters roles of texture and emotional ambiguity.

These people are damaged goods, and they often cause additional damage to themselves and those around them. How they interact changes, sometimes in imperceptible ways, yet always causing perceptible changes.

De Niro gives a subtle yet strong performance as Jack, a seemingly dull man on the surface, with a reservoir of rage underneath. He’s nicely balanced by Norton, in one of his more animated recent turns as the title character, a fast-talking felon who unexpectedly finds himself taking stock of his past misdeeds. Frances Conroy, as Jack’s timid, long-suffering wife, registers strongly without doing much overtly.

The real surprise here is Jovovich, giving undoubtedly one of her best performances… although the competition isn’t very strong. (Resident Evil? Ultraviolet?

Resident Evil 2, 3…?) Still, she provides much of the story’s dramatic lynchpin and does so in forceful fashion.

Stone is not a light film, nor a film to be taken lightly. That it doesn’t play out, or pay off, in expected ways, may infuriate audiences weaned on high-concept moviemaking. It’s a challenging work that demands much from its audience. Whether they’re willing to do so is up to them. The film is what it is, and it’s something very different. That’s not a bad thing at all.

(For an exclusive interview with Stone screenwriter Angus MacLachlan, turn to Page 49)

Woody Allen’s latest film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, does not rank with the filmmaker’s greater achievements. On the contrary, this dour and disappointing film definitely ranks with his lesser ones. For those hoping for a Woody Allen “comeback” — some have been waiting a long time — better luck next time.

The setting is contemporary London, which offered Allen a new (and refreshing) setting for Allen’s Match Point (2005) but is rather incidental here. Even Vilmos Zsigmond’s customarily solid cinematography can’t inject much life into the story.

The notion that love and infatuation are fleeting is hardly a new one, as witness Allen’s earlier, funnier, more perceptive treatises on the same theme. The occasional witty line or moment is lost amid the overall listlessness of the proceedings.

Zak Orth provides the Allen-esque narration, a role that Allen could easily have filled himself. That he didn’t almost gives the indication that his heart wasn’t in it, either. (It sure seems that way, given the final result.)

Allen has again assembled a star-studded cast: Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto (in her first film since Slumdog Millionaire) and Gemma Jones, the latter faring best, comparatively speaking, here. They’re all looking for love and/or success, and having a hard time of it.

The characters in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger aren’t terribly good or compelling company. Each is self-absorbed and miserable at the beginning of the film, and most of them are even more self-absorbed and miserable at the fade-out. Needless to say, what takes place in-between is what makes them more miserable.

There are no new insights here, and the film is not particularly amusing. Even for the most die-hard Allen aficionados, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is likely to be a letdown. It’s not even particularly interesting as a failure, which would have once been unthinkable in Woody Allen’s case.