Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Vicky, Christina and Barcelona, oh my!

What's a guy to do when his air-conditioning dies in the month of August (though it's since been replaced, thankfully) and there really aren't any terribly enticing movies opening in Macon? Get out of town, of course.

I had, shamefully, never been to the Georgia Aquarium, which is easily as cool an attraction as its billed to be, so to celebrate my four-day weekend I finally trekked to Atlanta to check it out and work in dinner with some friends and - of course - three movies.

The flicks were "Vicky Christina Barcelona," "Tell No One" and "Bottle Shock," and I liked them all to at least some degree. I'll discuss them all over the next three days, in order of just how much they worked for me.

By that standard, I certainly have to start with Woody Allen's flick, which was, if not the best movie I've seen this year (and I think by the end of the year it will still be in my top five), by far the most fun, which to me is just about the same thing.

The first thing that "VCB" (lazy I know, but you know what I mean) does right is that it's funnier than Woody has been since at least "Bullets over Broadway." But unlike the broad humor that marked that farce, and reared its fairly juvenile head in this "diary" for Sunday's New York Times, the wit of "VCB" unfolds in a way that flows naturally with the enchanting story. There was only one moment that made me just laugh out loud (Rebecca Hall's Vicky referring to Javier Bardem's Juan Antonio as a "charmingly candid wife beater") but a lot more that just made me smile.

Secondly, this flick owes a big debt to Pedro Almodovar in all the best ways. Though Woody's flicks have always had a strong sense of place, what you feel in "VCB" and the best of Almodovar's flicks is a real joy in the beauty of Spain, rather than the angst Woody famously found in New York City before transporting it to London.

But I guess a word or two about the story is in order. The titular Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) are two American college students spending the summer in Barcelona, where they encounter painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz.) What's surprising in how their relationships develop is just how much understanding of women (rather than girls, I know you're thinking) Woody shows here (though, since I live by myself in a four-room cottage, you might have to wonder just how much I understand them myself.)

Vicky, Christina and Maria Elena start out as stereotypes, respectively, rigidly structured, loose and lusty, and simply loco. But as the movie unfurls, Woody for the first time in a long time lets them develop in a way that the three actresses clearly embraced. Scarlett was simply annoying in "Match Point," the flick's main weakness, but Woody's finally found a role she can fit into here. The real soul of the movie, however, is Rebecca Hall's Vicky, who is tempted and seriously conflicted by her encounter with Juan Antonio. I couldn't remember if I had ever seen her before, but I'm sure I will again (in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" and, even better, in Nicole Holofcener's first feature film in three years.) Bardem, of course, has the appeal to seduce the two of them while at the same time trying to take care of his rather insane ex-wife, which is the kind of character Almodovar would have written for Penelope Cruz if Woody hadn't gotten to it first.

OK, you get the idea I like this one a lot, right, but allow me to gush about one more thing: The music. Woody has clearly had a love for the guitar (going so far as to make a mildly disappointing flick devoted to Django Reinhardt in "Sweet and Lowdown"), and here he uses the Spanish picking of Giulia y los Tellarini (for the title track), Juan Serrano and others to cast a spell on Vicky and me for the 90 minutes or so that this flick took me away.

There is one annoying trait of "VCB" that might bother other viewers more than it did me: The rather unnecessary narrator (Christopher Evan Welch.) Though it eventually settles into the rhythm of the rest of the flick, it's still just a crutch that adds nothing to the story and that I hope Woody will avoid from now on (since he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.)

But as you can probably tell, that wasn't nearly enough to destroy my love for the best flick Woody Allen has made in many, many years. Peace out.

P.S.: It just hit me that Rebecca Hall was indeed the heroine in the retro British romantic comedy "Starter for 10," well worth a rental if you can find it.


Bob said...

I liked this one too. I'll finally get around to reviewing it myself tonight probably. Rebecca Hall was in "The Prestige" as well. She played Christian Bale's wife.
I also thought "Bottle Shock" was pretty good too. I did a brief write up on it a few weeks ago so I'm eager to hear your take on it.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'll check out your Bottle Shock review when I get a chance later today, Bob .. In a nutshell, I thought the first hour really meandered around with a lot of subplots which, even if they were true, just added nothing to the story, but once it got down to the wine competition it was just really fun

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