Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Hello all, and welcome to this year's edition of March Madness. I'm kicking it off with a film that had a lot of buzz around it back in '08 that I never had a chance to see until the other night: Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Since we're just a couple weeks removed from the Academy Awards, I figured the timing would be decent to check this one out.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Writer/Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz

Note: For many years, I had never seen a Woody Allen movie. It wasn't that I discounted his work as unworthy of my attention, or even that I actively avoided his films - I just hadn't seen them. All that changed last year, when I finally decided to watch Annie Hall (from what I understand, the most "Woody Allen-ish" of all his films). I enjoyed the movie, with Allen himself giving an engaging, if quasi-annoyingly neurotic, performance. Since then, I have seen 2005's Match Point (suspenseful and tense), 2006's Scoop (genuine and funny), and Cassandra's Dream (number 10 on my Top 10 of 2008 list).

Woody's career has undergone a mini-renaissance since he started making his films overseas about five years ago. Vicky Cristina Barcelona falls nicely into this rejuvenated filmography as a reflective tale of love, longing, and that ineffable feeling we all get when we try to figure out what we want in life. The story follows two friends, Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) as they take a summer vacation in Spain. Soon after arriving, they meet the charming painter Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Bardem); his forthcoming approach to seducing them draws in the impetuous Cristina but shocks the uptight Vicky. They both develop feelings for him as he re-enters into a relationship with his ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz), a woman whose insanity and passion have kept him thinking of her for years. But when Cristina moves in with the former couple and Vicky has her own emotional connection with Juan Antonio, things become more complicated than any of them predicted.

As per the usual Woody style, VCB is very reliant on dialogue, tone, and character; this has both positive and negative impact on the film as a whole. An omniscient, detached narrator (whom we never see) dictates the inner thoughts of the main characters to the audience in a manner that is both matter-of-fact and strangely out of place at the same time. The storyline is fairly simple (this isn't a murder mystery or a winding tale of intrigue) and allows room for the characters to shine, some of which succeed far more than others.

Bardem was the best of the bunch by far, showing a drastic difference from his evil-personified Oscar winning role in 2007's No Country For Old Men and thereby establishing range - one of my preeminent qualities for respecting/appreciating an actor. Pacino, take note. I thought Johansson was the second best (I normally don't care for her as an actress), balancing a thoughtful innocence with a carefree spirit. Juan Antonio's nihilistic tendencies meld with Cristina's in the beginning, but she soon realizes that she isn't quite ready to devote herself as fully to that school of thought as her lover.

Penelope Cruz gave an Oscar-winning performance as Maria Elena, the suicidal loon, and while she was solid, I thought her screen time may have been a little short to warrant her win. (If Javy told her to "speak English" one more time, I was going to wreck somebody.) Apparently many others disagreed with my assesment since she's won at least 10 different awards for her performance. Nicely done. Rebecca Hall worked with ScarJo on 2006's The Prestige (one of my favorites), but plays Vicky with an unfortunate lack of zeal that brings the whole movie down a little bit. I found her character to be pretty one-dimensional and kind of annoying, since she spends most of the movie obsessing about one particular event and never really doing anything about it.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most besides the foreign setting was the incorporation of mostly indigenous music. There were multiple scenes featuring Spanish guitar, and repetition of a song aptly titled "Barcelona" that was beautifully melodic and a perfect match for the movie. It truly seems as if Woody Allen, a famous New Yorker, has found new inspiration from working overseas after making films in (mostly) one city for almost 50 years. The cinematography was gorgeous, aided drastically by the locations themselves (architechture, gardens, etc). The camerawork was straightforward and intimate, allowing the actors the ability to use the whole frame to manifest their performances without worrying about excessive dolly moves or crane shots. This, plus the unaffected narrator reading as if the film is a page in a diary, gave the film a wispy quality that is hard to define; it's a movie about one summer in the lives of two best friends as they evolve and try to find out what they really want in life.

A successful mix of hope, passion, melancholy, and yearning for the unknown pushes Vicky Cristina Barcelona above others in its genre. If you're an Allen fan, this is a must see. If you're not, use this film to ease your way into his distinctive style without overdosing on neuroticism. Until next time...


Jacob said...

I really want to see this movie. One of my favorite Woody Allen movies is Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). I love Diane Keaton, and she tends to balance out Woody's annoying neurosis.


Ashley said...

awesome review, how very eloquent.