on September 7, 2008
In "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Woody Allen begs to contradict another pundit of his age, Mick Jagger. Woody demonstrates in his latest movie that you can't EVER get what you want, and you also can't get what you need. He demonstrates this in the story of how Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two lovely young Americans staying in Barcelona for a few months, react to the romantic overtures of the dashing, primally sexy artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Vicky--a master's candidate in "Catalan identity," although she is not Catalan and barely speaks Catalan or even Spanish--finds that sex with Juan Antonio shakes up her previously solid feelings for her dullish American fiance, Doug (Chris Messina). Cristina--a dilettantish photographer/filmmaker who is defined by the fact that she only knows what she DOESN'T want in a relationship with a man--finds greater satisfaction with Juan Antonio, at least until Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio's volatile, insanely jealous ex-wife, shows up.
Some critics have opined that "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a hackneyed blast at naive Americans left at sea by European sexual sophistication. However, I think it's more a delineation of Woody's basic belief that happiness in love is transitory at best. How can you possibly hold up Juan Antonio and Maria Elena--who are constantly at each other's throats, to the point that Maria Elena brandishes knives and guns--as an example of sexual sophistication? They can't live with each other, they can't live without each other, but she may end up killing him, herself, and a few innocent bystanders. As enacted in a scintillating performance by Cruz, Maria Elena embodies the eternal irrationality of love, a blind craziness that--at least in Woody's view--stamps an irrevocable expiration date on even the tenderest, most ardent love.
Not quite a comedy but certainly not a tragedy, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a rueful commentary on the constant dissatisfactions of love and life, made all the more bittersweet by the heartbreakingly beautiful scenes of Barcelona and Catalunya wrapped in golden light by photographer Javier Aguirresarobe. The film offers us multiple pleasures--not least the excellent performances--yet, in the end, it feels slight. There are too many of Woody's familiar tropes for us to take the film at face value, especially the overly familiar characters; personally, I'm tired of the gorgeous, nubile young "Woody women" who are drawn vaguely toward a career in the arts yet are completely confused about everything except their need for hot sex. And, yes, Woody, we got the point decades ago that you consider life and the Universe meaningless; why do you always have to have one character in every movie (in this case, Juan Antonio) declare that belief baldly? "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is worth seeing, but it falls short of being one of Woody's masterpieces.
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is a film about youth, about self-discovery, and about the anything goes freedom and spontaneity that Americans feel (or try to feel) when far from their own homeland and therefore liberated from their own cultures notions about love and life. Abroad one escapes the tyranny of ingrained convention and habits of mind and one gives oneself permission to experience another version of self and life in another land, or such is the promise of travel.
The problem with Vicky and Cristina (and perhaps with this film) is that Barcelona does not really liberate either of them from anything. Both seem too self-conscious and/or too self-occupied to step outside themselves and what they know. Both have a comfort level with themselves and each other that is never breeched. And so although Barcelona promises and delivers a certain amount of adventure, it does not really deliver either girl from themselves. During their stay, they are exposed to a passionate Spanish culture and introduced to a fiery tempered Spaniard but ultimately they both make the same kinds of choices that they made back home. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) has always been an impulsive free spirit who starts things, loses interest, and does not finish them. It does not matter what country she is in, she is the same, and so the Spanish trip ultimately changes nothing for her. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) has always been conservative in matters of life and love. Although she is attracted to others that feel things and act on those feelings (like her friend Cristina) Vicky does not altogether trust emotions and is afraid to have them and, therefore, is never certain what she feels or if she feels anything at all. Vicky is very much like a classic Henry James male and she is driven by the same fear that drives James' male characters which is a fear that they are missing out on life. Although engaged before she embarks on her Spanish holiday, and apparently immune from the advances of strangers, she, nonetheless, remains fearful that she is missing out on something. Its really only when her friend enjoys a spontaneous summer with the painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his former lover Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) that she wishes that she too could live so passionately, so recklessly. The fact that she holds everything in is what makes her so alluring to the passion-drunk Juan Antonio. But she is who she is, neither Spain nor Juan Antonio have the power to changer her.
And so there is something sad about this trip (and this film). Woody Allen is one of the few directors who gives us genuinely interesting characters and stories and that should be applauded. In this film the two main characters, Vicky and Cristina, are ultimately incapable of being anything but who they are and who they are is Vicky and Cristina. Whether Woody thinks that their inability to live or think outside of their own comfort zone is an affliction that is peculiarly American is not exactly clear, but likely. Marie Elena's view of the Americans is that they are too self-involved to really live. Of course Maria Elena who does allow herself to live also opens herself up to suffering. I'm guessing that with Vicky Cristina Barcelona Woody is perhaps analyzing the American psyche (which is what he does best) and that what he finds is a psyche that is firmly rooted in and addicted to self and that resists any kind of self-surrender. This seems to be the sober reflection of an artist who has seen and contemplated America and Americans for many years.
Despite the location this is a very sober film and, despite a few well-placed laughs, also a very somber one.
on July 4, 2009
On first hearing about this new Woody Allen film - Vicky Cristina Barcelona, marked up as a comedy and listed as Woody Allen return to form, I was certain to see this on release date in the UK. But life once again had me side tracked and I've only managed to get around to it now. Even though I've heard good/bad opinions from friends it was still a film I was always going to view for myself; so rented this film to draw my own conclusion.
The whole film is interwoven and shaped so that different storylines are voiced together by a narrator who fills us; the viewer; with a bigger picture of what happening at all times. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, three characters are placed in the title, starting with two americans who have different attitudes to life and love. Victoria (Rebecca Hall) plays it straight laced; a no nonsense attitude; questioning everything; her sensible cerebral life is her. Currently working on a Master's degree in Catalan Culture she leaves a well-off fiance behind in New York and travels to Barcelona with Cristina to stay with friends for the summer. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) free spirit; sexually adventurous; committed only to herself; knowing what she doesn't want in life rather than what she does. Cristina's art is photography. The third character Barcelona with amazing architecture, music, cuisine, a beautiful enriched festively soak up the sun atmospheric city.
Living in Barcelona; Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem) plays the moody, seductive Picasso-ish artist who in turn sets out to seduce both girls alone or even both at the same time, a distraction part time, using what he needs to remain creative. Juan might even be looking for a re-placement of losted love as he clearly has not gotten over Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) the passionate muse and fiery ex-wife who returns when mood suits.
Before long Victoria begins to question her own life; could she live on the other side like Cristina; Carefree. While Cristina questions commitment to any life with either one or two people in it. As for the artist and his ex-wife fire and passion holds the bond but realistically a third party is needed for them to remain harmonic. Could happiness be elusive?
One thing I did notice from the off: Woody Allen had chosen not to give himself an acting role but British actress Rebecca Hall; (Vicky) who does a great american accent for her part, seemed to be playing Woody's part in this film, the mannerisms are more than recognizable here. Other film trademarks are visible like encounters in the street also Cristina's artistic bent, like Annie Hall's so long ago, should be for photography. Also the fact Vicky and Cristina speak in that distinctive indulgent conversational babble which worked quiet well from both actress.
But there is no doubt the Spanish players have it; presence and forthright energy, Javier Bardem as the artist; alpha male; Penélope Cruz clearly stealing the show; everything she does and says seems to mean more, count for more, she certainly walks off with the film and an Oscar.
Summing up: What I loved mostly was the beauty of Barcelona on film, the photography was marvelous. Things I could relate too in this; Victoria taking in the local music played, this is certainly something I'd do; seek out and find wonderful acoustic guitar outside a Café or Bar. It deals quiet nicely with modern day relationships; in tune with our times this film is PG rated; which would not have been the case maybe ten years ago; dealing with sexual topic's on a PG shows life; moving forward. Overall perfectly watchable; evening in; glass of wine. Three and a half stars I'd give this; I wouldn't put this down as a return to form for Allen; comically speaking, but it's more than a likable film to watch; worth seeing.
on May 24, 2009
In a way, Woody Allen is every bit the escapist a filmmaker as are the directors who give us CGI dinosaurs and galactic space battles. In what world other than Woody's do Bohemian painters, sculptors, writers, photographers and poets live in handsome houses, drink fine wines, drive luxury cars, and buy expensive antiques? Of course it's not that no great artists are so successful in the real world, but in Woody's movies everyone is. And none of the other characters blink, or remark what an unusual situation we have here. (For a more realistic vision of how a relatively obscure artist lives [a poet this time] see The Hours.) Woody's people may still reside in the Village mentally, but materialistically their tastes are more Park Avenue, Rome and Paris, just like their creator.
Woody wants to eat his cake and have it too. His films always include boring characters (or more precisely, attractive, young and insecure females married or engaged to boring male characters) who work in the stuffy corporate world. The implication from Allen is always that these are the dull people in life, that the Bohemians are the romantics with imagination and fire and passion. Yet the Bohemians never pay the price by living as Bohemians do. Their lifestyles and the incomes required to support them are those of the bean-counters that Woody seems to disdain. Only their sexual appetites seem more acute, their mores looser. Even though he's now 73, I can still feel Woody's adolescent insecurities, which he's never seemed to get over, and I'm not being puritanical here: I don't just mean the preverted insecurities...
Which brings me to Vicky Cristina Barcelona. This film is reminiscent of Manhattan, with a touch of Annie Hall, Match Point, Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Hannah and her Sisters, Mighty Aphrodite, and a dozen other films thrown in: young Ivy League-ish females of conflicting temperaments and values and have "existential" crises in the middle of the film; said crises are solved by rotating or experimenting with sex partners. Or maybe the rotating of the sex partners *caused* the crises--we're so confused. But we do a lot of hand-wringing in the second act, always over fine wines and killer views, or inside million-dollar apartments somehow owned by the aforementioned Bohemian artists. In the end, there's a change once again of heart and we basically wind up at square one, where we started with these people. After years of being accused of making the same basic idea over and over, Woody has bought a Fodor's guidebook and set some of his more recent remakes in Europe.
At least it's all great fun. Throughout VCB I felt Woody wasn't taking this too seriously: this *isn't,* thank heavens, Interiors. It's almost as though Woody's become a self-aware manqué of himself lately. I mean, can we really expect anything new and eye-opening in the 30th film about young neurotic females on a journey that involves partner-swapping and clever allusions to the art world any more than we can expect anything new from Star Wars VII: Revenge of the Droid Clones, whenever George Lucas decides to make it? By now attending Woody Allen films, like attending Lucas' films, has become ritual to the fans.
Rebecca Hall plays the Diane Keaton part. Scarlett Johansson plays the Mia Farrow, or Mariel Hemingway, or whoever, part. It's well-written, within strict limits. Woody has a great ear for how people, at least people of a particular circle, talk, and he lets them talk, which is refreshing in an era where so much film "dialogue" consists of the "f" word or sarcastic one-liners and immature sex jokes. At he same time, name me, jokes aside, a really great, memorable line from any WA film. Most of it is throwaway, and you could cut and paste a rant from Dianne Wiest's mouth from Hannah And Her Sisters into one of the characters here. But at least Allen's gotten over his other big insecurity, which is filling his scripts with allusions to writers, philosophers, composers and other highbrows to show you how literate he is.* (Yes, I know he makes fun of people like this--Diane Keaton in Manhattan--but he also fills his "Woody" character with enough knowledge from Everyman's Library to keep the writers on Jeopardy busy for months.) The film is gorgeously shot, well-acted (especially by the women) and engaging. But in the end, it feels hollow, partly because we've been there before, partly because he's not even *riffing* on himself anymore. No one and nothing changes at the end of VCB. Without giving away spoilers, I'll just say no one seems to come to any realizations, which is why I put quotes around the word existential. They just have problems that last for two hours, conveniently. Fade out with some plucky music and those Windsor-font credits.
Not a bad film, but nothing to write home (or send postcards) about either. Also, as a few others have pointed out, the narrator was unnecessary, and the film would have been a bit better if we could have reached for ourselves some of the conclusions we are spoon-fed.
* Of course I wrote this review before Midnight in Paris.
Penelope Cruz might have won the Oscar for her brief but explosive performance, but it's Rebecca Hall that dominates this film. Having seen it, I'm stunned more people aren't talking about her performance. It is nothing less than brilliant, shaded with complex nuances and emotions right down to the last fade-out scene with the anguished look on her face as she walks away from her what-might-have-been with Javier Bardem's character. Of course, the excellence of her performance is thrown into greater relief by the near-in comparison with Scarlett Johansson. Woody Allen is obviously smitten; many of the rest of us...not so much.
I'm not a great fan of Allen, but he's in top form here. I especially loved the way that the initial presence of Bardem hovered off-screen while the female characters whispered excitedly and furtively about him. You think: this guy better be something else. When he's first shown - wordlessly - my wife gasped.
The same with Allen's direction of Cruz's appearance: 45 minutes into a move clocked in at a tidy 1 hour 38 minutes, the divine Ms. P had yet to make an appearance. I thought to myself "Wow, she must come into this film like a ball of fire." Indeed. For those of us used to Cruz' knockout performances in her native tongue (see Pedro Almodóvar's Volver foremost), it's wonderful to see her ability on display in an English language film.
By the way, the sleeve blurb on my rented copy described Cruz' character as "insanely jealous" about her ex-husband (Bardem). Viewers will agree: she's not insanely jealous, just flat-out insane.
One additional observation: parts of Christopher Evan Welch's voice-over could serve as a commercial for Spain. The country itself is like a fifth main character in the film.
on February 21, 2009
I thought this movie was well-paced and that the dialogue was interesting and quirky, but somehow it felt lacking in substance by the end. To be sure all of the actors turned out great performances, especially Penelope Cruz, and the eye candy of Barcelona and Oviedo, not to mention the sultry, fun music, was exciting. But the actual plot is so thin and the character development so lacking, that once I reached the end I felt like there was nothing to carry away from this film.
Vicky and Cristina both face separate problems when it comes to romance. Cristina wants someone to settle with. Vicky wants someone to ignite her passion, which she isn't getting from her nice but dull fiance. Both of them think they might find solutions to their problems with the refreshing, exotic Juan Antonio, but neither of them can because they can't change themselves. The change of scenery can't change their habits in dealing with romance. Maria Elena and Juan Antonio have the passion, but not the stability. And the film is pervaded with the sense that they will never find that quality, and are shackled to a kind of half-love.
It seems like Woody Allen is critiquing all forms of romantic relationships as ultimately unsatisfying if not outright doomed to failure, and I found this to be cynical and unfair. Vicky and Cristina seem to go through a series of potentially life-altering experiences, but in the end they are the same as they were before they came to Barcelona, except maybe a little unhappier. It seems like a terrible waste of opportunity. And without question, Maria Elena and Juan Antonio don't develop at all, and you just know that they will continue on as they always have.
And I couldn't help but feel that the narration was in place because the feelings and actions of the characters weren't relatable enough without it, and that's not good, especially in a film; either not enough work went into showing, or else there was little to show in the first place. I think it was a little of both in this case.
This movie was saved by a seductive sensory experience of Catalonia, but it couldn't quite make up for the lackluster story or the static characters. Any deep revelations it tried to make were muddled and fell flat. The only thing this movie leaves you with is that relationships fail and people are too complicated to work through it. To sum it up with a line from Juan Antonio: "Love is so transient." That's just not true, but the characters will apparently never understand that. Even if they do see that they have to reconcile the problems within themselves before they can succeed in love and life, they won't try. And I didn't find that inspiring or even worthy of sympathy.
on March 30, 2009
Even bad Woody Allen is better than almost anyone else's good stuff. He is and has been our only truly world class auteur (ok, Scorsese too). He is quite simply our Ingmar Bergman and as such deserves all the praise he gets and then some.From the low farce and Catskill schtick of Bananas and the Sex comedies through the darkness of Crimes, Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhatten, no one in American cinema has the range of Woody.While I liked Matchpoint I thought it finally a Woody gimmick piece not unlike Purple Rose of Cairo (which I really loved anyway) and Broadway Danny Rose. But this latest piece Vicky Christina Barcelona was truly an exercise in modern existential loneliness and isolation. It isn't so much about Henry James' lost Americans abroad as it is about how none of us can find the happiness we seek even when it is there for the taking. Sartre says, "Each man must undergo his own death" and for all the laughs and romance VCB is finally about the aloneness that is the human condtion and even when we are surrounded by beautiful music and beautiful art we will finally go to the airport in search of the unhappiness we so richly deserve.Hats off Woody and folks rent or buy.....it's a better night than you'll get with the current Hollywood movies about 30 something men playing video games while thinking about the Swim Suit issue. An adult movie for adults. Now that's a concept.
on March 29, 2015
I really just wanted to add my rating to the mix. Everyone pretty much has decided if they like this movie or not. I did quite a bit. It was like Woody Allen had lunch with Wes Anderson to discuss a movie and this was the result. Those are two of my favorite directors. I especially identified with the idea that relationships can include whatever situation the people involved desire and not just romantic relationships either. Friendships too.
And then there is Penelope Cruz. Such a forceful actress in anything I have seen her in. She is also one of the few that makes you feel like you could actually fall in love with her.
I also wanted to mention that this would make a great double feature with "Fading Gigolo [Blu-ray]". Not a Woody Allen movie but certainly in his spirit.
on March 22, 2009
Woody Allen has produced an excellent film for thinking adults in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I say this because he is able to capture much of the paradox of relationships as two young women in their 20s begin to explore what they want from life and from their relationships.
The character of Vicky, played wonderfully by Rebecca Hall, is a young woman who plays it safe most of the time. However a short and unexpected fling with artist Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem, opens up emotional doors for her that she can't close with her rational mind. Vicky and her good friend Cristina are staying at the home of Vicki's family friends, where Vicky accidentally sees the wife in the embrace of her Spanish lover. Patricia Clarkson plays the middle aged woman who tries to explain to Vicky why she has taken a lover and then begins to take the role of advisor to Vicky so that Vicky doesn't make the same mistake of marriage for stability rather than passion.
Cristina on the other hand moves in with the artist and his mentally unstable wife, Maria Elena, played by Penelope Cruz. Despite all the freedom, drama and sex, in the end Cristina sadly learns that they are a highly dependent couple, passionate about each other, but so unstable that they can not maintain a solid relationships.
In the end we might expect Vicky to learn from her experiences with Juan Antonio and drop her wealthy privileged boyfriend, Doug. Or we might expect Cristina to learn some lessons about dependency and stability from living in a 3-way relationship with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena. But this is a Woody Allen film and behind the wry humor Woody is a wise philosopher. For in the end we can only learn from our own mistakes and unfortunately we often have to make the same mistakes repeatedly before our foolish hearts get a clue.
This is excellent film making. The film is warm and sunny and often shot outdoors, exploring the Catalan landscape. The architecture of Gaudi pops up here and there in scenes in Parc Guell or Sagrada Familia.
All the actors were in top form with Rebecca Hall emerging to the top with a subtle performance of a naive and insecure young woman playing the role of a determined and stable woman. Scarlett Johansson is excellent as the risk taking young woman who gradually understands that she is the third party to a highly dynamic mutually dependent relationship which really holds no future for her. Javier Bardem is very good as an intelligent, intuitive, man who finds he can't live in peace with his soul mate. Penelope Cruz is superb as a volatile dramatic creative woman who struggles against her own dependency needs. Last of all, Patricia Clarkson is excellent as the older woman who has been there and done that and now wishes that others would not make the same mistakes.
on July 23, 2014
These impossibly self-absorbed characters never got my attention, and Woody Allen never seemed to figure out a plot to drive the action. Yes, the people are beautiful and sexy, but even sexy can get boring without some raison d'etre.