February 14, 2009
Today being Valentine’s Day, I took my wife to see Vicky Cristina Barcelona at her request even though I saw this just a couple of weeks ago and rated it as a 7/10 film. On second viewing I think that’s about fair- perhaps even a little on the stingy side. What stood out for me far more this time was the cynicism behind the film- every motivation and every relationship was treated as pretentious and false in its own way. As if Woody was simply sick of everything. I found it harder to engage with the protagonists- as it often is when a film is filled with spoilt people in big houses with no discernible source of income, but that’s another matter- because I was more aware of the bitterness below the surface. I think that’s a strength of the film, though, you can suspend disbelief and find yourself charmed by a film where for a short period of time people step out of their comfort zone and learn about themselves. A Spanish Roman Holiday, if you will. The easy flow and soundtrack-driven pace of the film allied to the use of a narrator (is there any better way to hint to an audience that it’s okay to switch off their critical faculties?) aids this process tremendously and is probably the reason behind the film’s relative success at the box office.
On the other hand, you can view the film as a critique of pretensions and the way that the desire to appear as a tortured artist or as a fully ‘together’ and in control are simply two sides of the same coin. Interestingly, Vicky and Cristina are shown arriving and leaving via Barcelona Airport at the beginning and end of the movie via a split-screen in which their positions are swapped- as if to represent the way in which they have to some extent swapped what they want out of life with one another.
In fact the only character to come out of the film with his ‘image’ intact is Doug (played by Chris Messina who does this kind of dull straight-laced lawyer/broker type of role really well, as he showed in the risible Made of Honour). I was going to say ‘come out sympathetically’, but his character doesn’t elicit sympathy- even though he’s cuckolded throughout- simply because he’s a bit of a dick. Nonetheless, he is the only main character to have been honest throughout the film. Even Javier Bardem’s frank and forthright Juan Antonio is portrayed as playing out a pretence of honesty as Penélope Cruz’s Maria Elena explains when massaging him to relieve a tension headache “Oh, to the world, he’s carefree, nothing matters, life is short and with no purpose kind of thing. But all his fear just goes to his head“. Interestingly, and I say this having seen the film twice, I’m certain that during the Spanish dialogue in that scene Cruz refers to Bardem’s character as Javier and not Juan Antonio.
And so, this is definitely a film I enjoyed seeing a second time. In fact, it had made me feel eager to re-engage with Woody Allen after sulking about his poor calibre output over the last twenty years and ignoring him for quite some time.
January 21, 2009
There is something a little uncomfortable about watching Woody Allen films. You are essentially watching an old man vicariously living his lothario fantasies- in this case through Javier Bardem. Of course, in recent years, it has also been uncomfortable watching the slow and seemingly irreversible decline of an important figure in modern cinema. And this film shows that there is life in the old dog yet. This isn’t a comeback of Mickey Rourke proportions- his lows were never as low as Mickey got and this isn’t a career-best as Mickey’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is- but if Mickey wasn’t about, this would be the comeback of the year.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona develops an intriguing story at its own pace, it is confidently crafted and the use of a narrator to tie together the various scenes allowing the scenes themselves to develop characters with no necessity to move the story along necessarily is inspired.
In addition to this, Allen has a high-powered cast and elicits first-rate performances all-round- with Bardem being the pick ahead, slightly, of Cruz. All too often with a number of name players the movie is unbalanced by their demands for more screen time, better lines and the hostility that results is clear for all to see on screen. Credit to Woody Allen for what shines through the screen as a genuine ensemble piece. A word too for the soundtrack, which breathes life into the whole piece and is as good as I’ve heard since Jonny Greenwood’s minimal masterpiece for ‘There Will Be Blood’. The repeated use of the longing ‘Barcelona’ by Giulia y los Tellarini is beautifully judged.
What stops this being absolutely vintage Allen is that it is less affecting at the finale than the likes of ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’. Nonetheless, it is wonderful in its own right- 7/10.
January 6, 2009
One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve begun recording these thoughts for myself is that it is far easier to criticise than praise. For ‘All About My Mother’ I could simply write “Astonishing. 9/10”. This is a film that looks at women on the margins of ‘normal’ life and speaks with depth and interest about motherhood and pretence and expectations and forgiveness and stoicism and compassion and gender and love and sin and theatricality and human frailty and the arts and inspiration and mortality and sexuality and sensuality.
Almodóvar relates stories of interest that are grounded in reality but have an emotional and intellectual depth which invites repeated viewings. Yes, his films look great, yes they have a warmth and human atmosphere, yes he gets great performances from his performers and yes he tells great stories, but his films go beyond all of that. They are all of those things and they are theses on the human condition in addition. Right now I can’t think of anyone else in cinema today who challenges and conspires with me as a viewer to anywhere near the same degree. I think he is amazing.
One other thing I’ve noticed about writing these notes is that they channel my thinking about what I’ve seen and as I write them I often adjust my rating as a result. Usually, the score goes down as I focus upon the flaws in what I’ve seen. All About My Mother – 10/10.