Friday, August 15, 2008

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" - REVIEW

For years Woody Allen made it his mission to make many of his films love letters to his favorite city: Manhattan. Even when he started losing his touch in the late 80s and most of the 90s (and pretty much all of this decade too), he mostly carried on his love affair with New York. Then, for whatever reason he decided to do a little cinematic globetrotting; to try and fall in love with cities abroad and dedicate films to them. Match Point and Scoop went out to London, as did Cassandra's Dream, but none of those managed to ignite much of a romantic spark between Allen and Europe. However, it seems that in Spain, specifically Barcelona, that Mr. Allen has found his European muse. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, though perhaps not among Allen's top tier work, is without a doubt his most pleasurable work in YEARS, and that's saying something. Vicky (lovely Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johannson) are two best friends who take a trip to Barcelona for the summer. They stay with a family friend of Vicky's (Patricia Clarkson) to enjoy the sights, and do a little studying for their degrees. However, everything changes when care free artist Juan Antonio (a low key Javier Bardem) whisks them off (much to Vicky's dismay) on a four day weekend in a small town in Spain. I won't reveal much more of the plot, but let's just say that Vicky and Cristina have wildly different views on love. Vicky (already engaged) is a big fan of finding comittment, while Cristina is more of a free spirit who isn't quite sure of what she wants; all she knows is what she doesn't want. The three become engaged in a semi love triangle and dine at charming restaurants, and listen to seductive performances of Spanish guitar pieces in candle-lit gardens filled with bouganvilla. While Juan Antonio seduces the two ladies, Allen begins to seduce the audience, with golden shots of Spain accompanied but wonderful Spanish guitar. All of it pratically doubles as a video brochure for Spain, which is shot lovingly in a comforting golden glow (it's as if someone went and dunked the film in a jar of honey). However, there's still one final piece of the puzzle; Juan Antonio's unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Now, the whole time the main trio have been mostly laid back and calm. It becomes Cruz's job to inject the movie with a few volts of electricity, and she does it marvelously. Every minute she's on screen (which regretfully, isn't much) is delightful, wacky, and electrifying; though she arrives quite late into the film, Cruz still manages to run away with the show and simultaneously make the two American girls look plain by comparison (crazy rarely looks this beautiful). However, even though Allen obviously had the most fun with Cruz's role, he still manages to fully develop all of his characters, and bring that out in the central trio of actors. Cristina finds herself falling for Juan Antonio AND Maria Elena, while Vicky finds herself inexplicably moved by the sounds of a Spanish guitar, and the audience gets to feel that as it plays out across the actors' faces on screen. It's not perfect though. The narrator, though not annoying as a concept, falters due to the bland and stilted way in which he recites his lines; it feels out of place against the honey colored frames on screen. Also, there are times when Allen's dialogue starts to become a tad clunky and threatens to become like that of Match Point. However, the script has plenty more successes, mostly in how fully drawn the characters are (as I kind of said before); perhaps the most notable little inside joke the script plays is it's spoof of, to an extent, Penelope Cruz herself. Cruz at first struggled to make much a splash in English speaking roles, and was often criticized for it. It seems to be no coincidence that Bardem's Juan Antonio is constantly urging Maria Elena, "please you must speak English! She [Cristina] can't understand you! You must speak English while she is around!" And there's another thing the script does right; it lives up to its promise to make us laugh. Though there are some dark undertones (Maria Elena is suicidal), they are handled in a way that mostly elicits laughs, and some of them are riotous (a scene where someone is almost killed is juxtaposed with the movie's funniest line). It's probably a good thing that these darker issues are left relatively unexplored, because they would detract from the movie's secondary purpose: to be a love letter to Barcelona. And no one wants to read a love letter about suicide and bad marriages...

Grade: B+/A-

Nominations: Best Picture(#5), Best Director - Woody Allen(#5), Best Actress - Rebecca Hall(#2), Best Supporting Actress - Penelope Cruz(#1 WINNER), Best Original Screenplay(#3)

Number of 2008 Films Seen: 24

Top 10 of the Year:
1. The Dark Knight
3. The Fall
4. In Bruges
5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
6. Tropic Thunder
7. Iron Man
8. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
9. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
10. Be Kind Rewind

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