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.
February 1, 2009
The only blot on my horizon as I entered the screening of Frost/Nixon was the involvement of possibly the world’s most bombastic and unsubtle director Richie ‘Ron Howard’ Cunningham. There must be a film of his that I liked, but right now I can’t name it! But I was hopeful that the high quality cast and compelling story would stop the Director ruining a potentially great movie. And it does- though Richie Cunningham really tried his best.
For a long time during Frost/Nixon I was convinced that Ron Howard was trying to remake Rocky as a political movie. I realised during the late night phone-call scene that he was actually remaking the more melodramatic Rocky II. That ‘training montage’ which followed the “win, Rocky win” moment was horribly forced and contrived and threatened to derail what was otherwise a great dramatic movie. This is a real life David vs Goliath story in its own right and really didn’t need anything extra shoehorned in to spice it up. At least he didn’t throw in an orphaned child of a Vietnam soldier telling Frost to “get him, get him for me and my Daddy“, I suppose.
But, aside from that, it is a cracking film. Frank Langella humanises Nixon (although I preferred him as a 2-D monster in many ways) with a performance that can be seen as sympathetic or snide dependent upon your view. Michael Sheen- one of my favourite current actors- does a great job as Frost, showing his vulnerability and, at times, obsequiousness and panic. He also provides Langella with a platform in their shared scenes by unselfishly toning down his portrayal of Frost’s many visual and verbal tics and minimising any distractions. Langella is taking the plaudits, and rightly so, but Sheen’s performance was a thing of understated beauty. In the supporting roles, Sam Rockwell didn’t quite convince and wasn’t quite authentic enough in his passion to ‘get Nixon’ and Oliver Platt crafted a character which grew in depth and importance- he did good, unspectacular work there and I was impressed. Rebecca Hall, who I saw recently in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was again competent and beautiful- if a little dull. I also thought Kevin Bacon was content with a pretty banal reading of his part and didn’t stretch himself as he can- but that this, again, worked in the film’s favour as most of his scenes were alongside Langella.
And so, overall, this was better than I feared but not as great as it could have been. It is certainly my favourite of the four Best Picture Oscar nominees I’ve seen, but if Ron Howard gets Best Director then I’ll be disappointed. 8/10.
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.