February 17, 2009
It’s funny, last night I was sulking because Topkapi is ‘just entertainment’and tonight I got in from the gym exhausted and only wanted entertainment. LoveFilm again came up trumps with Bananas. It’s also funny because it arrived on the back of me seeing Allen’s latest Vicky Cristina Barcelona twice (first, second) in the last few days and falling under his spell again for the first time in- I don’t know- fifteen? twenty years? If you want a final piece of neat coincidence, it arrives right between the release of the two parts of Soderbergh’s Che, which covers very similar material- though with somewhat greater resonance. The last time I watched a film with this much synchronicity (The Girl on a Motorcycle) it stank my DVD player out. Tonight’s predestined movie fared altogether better. I laughed my lungs up at times and was never less than entertained throughout the whole eighty-odd minutes.
I do tend to like short films, you know. I’ve spoken before about my admiration for economy and brutal editing and this film is a great example of that. The sheer number and variety of gags employed is staggering. At this point in his career, Allen was still very much in the thrall of the Marx Brothers- this film could be a homage to Duck Soup– and any serious points made here about the corrupting effect of power are purely incidental to the story. I’ve always considered that Woody Allen’s career followed the path from making madcap laugh-out loud comedies to cerebral wry smile comedies to bored expression films about dysfunctional people in dysfunctional relationships doing dysfunctional things- a bit simplistic maybe, but not too misleading. Here he’s at his zany best. The storyline involves a sexually inept, bookish and neurotic Jewish New Yorker rebounding from a failed relationship (Allen, obviously) winding up leading a revolution in the South American republic of San Marcos and being named President there. So far, so dumb. This set-up allows Allen’s imagination free-reign as we see sports reporter Howard Cosell commentating live on a Presidential assassination, Woody testing ‘the Execusiser’ a desk-based gym for people too busy to exercise, an incognito J. Edgar Hoover, a dream sequence involving a crucified Woody being reverse-parked by Nuns, a Battleship Potemkin skit, an advert where a Priest pushes New Testament cigarettes, the CIA sending US troops to fight on both sides of a revolution because they are afraid of being on the wrong side, Woody learning to be a guerrilla and pulling the pin from a grenade and throwing it (the pin!), Woody in the world’s least convincing Castro beard. The characters involved, 2-D though they are, are hilarious- the charming despot, madcap revolutionary, paranoid FBI men, cause-of-the-month protester- they all provide great colour.
The range of humour, as I said, is important to the movie- it could have been a tedious series of prat-falls or of witty exchanges that grate. It is nicely balanced. My favourite gag of all was when Woody, trying to impress the activist Nancy says “for me the greatest crimes are the crimes against human dignity” and then falling down a manhole. Or the typically Woody exchange: “how am I immature?” “emotionally, sexually and intellectually” “yeah but in what other ways?”. Even the music is great.
I think I’m rambling incoherently. I only make these notes so that I can look back and remember how I felt and this gibberish won’t help at all. Suffice to say I really enjoyed it- 8/10.
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.