Sunday, September 14, 2008

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA

Woody Allen's forty-second feature comes off as uninspired as the notes-on-a-napkin title he gave it. A cinematic lifer, Allen's had his ups & downs, his periods & interests, but the current era seems to be the one where our director is truly floating adrift. Save for the underrated Scoop and parts of Melinda and Melinda, Allen hasn't made a good film since 2000's Small Time Crooks. This judgment isn't coming from a Woody hater, far from it. I love the guy. I will go to war for his 90's films that critics often slag off.

What I think he's done - specifically from Match Point on - is taken the redundant criticisms to heart and tried to reinvent himself as a "mature" filmmaker. Perhaps it is Allen's filming in Europe that's stunted the independent instincts he once held as an American artist. It is much more charming to watch Allen's homages/tributes to European film (September, Interiors, Stardust Memories etc.) than it is watching him try to be European. Notice Vicky Cristina Barcelona's forced Gaudi, Catalan acoustic guitar, and Spanish poetry references, then compare that to the New York city buildings, Jazz, and E.E. Cummings inclusions in Hannah In Her Sisters.

This false sense of self comes through in Vicky Cristina when Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) settles into domestication with Juan Antonio. The narrator says, "Cristina considered herself an expatriate, one more in tune with European culture and now less affected by American materialism." (Hmmm, funny how her and Juan Antonio live in a house full of furnishings and niceties...). Thing is, I don't think Allen meant for this to come off as a sly joke.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells a fable of two NYC twentysomethings who set off on an international quest for clarity yet end up back at square one once the fun is done. BFF, but polar opposites when it comes to love, Vicky first enters our frame in black dress, while Cristina is in white. Vicky craves grounded commitment, while Cristina is a bit of a skank. But instead of exploring the benefits/trappings of these paths, Allen simply sets them up as prey for the Latino lover, Juan Antonio. Yep, he scores the Madonna and the whore. Mix in the schizo-sexy weapon wielding ex, and my man is hitting for the Triple Crown.

Yet here again, Allen is out of his league. He's not an erotic filmmaker. There are no sparks when Allen crafts a three-way darkroom kissing scene between Scarlett, Javier, and Penelope. In fact, this moment - shot under red lights - makes you yearn for the scene in Annie Hall where Alvy tries to spice up sex with Annie by putting a red light bulb into the bedside lamp ("I brought a little erotic artifact to give the place a flavor of old New Orleans... and, of course, we can develop photos afterwards.").

In the end, it's hard for me to really care where Woody goes from here and/or what he decides to do with his career. He's already established himself as a godhead, in my book, so if the man wants to make an seven-hour biopic about some jazz legend, so be it. He's the cinematic equivalent of R.E.M. to me. I'm already sold, the seduction is complete. The name's been etched on the golden challis above my bed. The love will never be perfect, but it's unconditional.

10 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'm not crazy about his latest stuff either. After the critical reception of Match Point I was surprised to find it so lifeless.

Now Pre-Millennial Allen is one of my favorite filmmmakers of all time. Despite his recent change of pace nothing can stop me from ranking him among the greatest ever, although I didn't like Small Time Crooks as much as you but it had its moments. Elaine May was hilarious as the almost supernaturally stupid cousin.

Fox said...

Agreed on the Elaine May. Woody cracks me up in Small Time Crooks too. I remember especially loving a moment in the basement when they bust a water line.

Oren said...

Woody seems to be making movies now not because he has something to say but because hes forgotten how to live his life when he's not on a movie set. Kind of like Bob Dylan.

Pat said...

Fox -

May I congratulate you on a fine review, and one with which I am totally in agreement. It is comforting to find that someone else in the blogosphere was as let down as I was by VCB. (and I also share you love of "Small Time Crooks" and your appreciation of "Scoop," although I thought "Melinda and Melinda" was a train wreck from start to finish.)

I finally saw "September" a few weeks ago, and was astonished at how much better I liked it than most of Allen's very recent films. It's supposed to be one of his stinkers, but it has many things to recommend it, not the least of which is Elaine Stritch's fine performance.

Tom Drew said...

Hannah in Her Sisters? Naughty!

;)

Rick Olson said...

Awww ... "the love is unconditional." I love it when you get sentimental, Fox

I liked this flick a lot better than you (or Pat, for that matter). Just goes to show you about taste. Although I really have no idea what.

Piper said...

Brian says it was very well done, but I'm with you Fox.

I miss the old Woody. I mean the old, old Woody. Give me Love and Death and Bananas and Sleeper. That was comedy gold.

I think Scarlett might be the worst thing to happen to him. And I can't imagine Scarlett being a bad thing to anyone.

Fox said...

Tom -

Whoa! Nice find! That has to be a Freudian slip of some kind. Right up Woody's alley. ("Woody's alley"???)

Pat & Rick -

Well, we obviously outnumber Rick 2 to 1, so the debate over taste is over VCB is over. I kid, I kid...

The thing I've liked about Woody's career is that there is a very chatty community of fans within his fans. Meaning, obviously we are all lovers of him, so the debates over which are his best/least-best etc. are always fun and civil.

Then you have the people that just HATE him... HATE him. I used to observe that Woody was a man's director, but then I met at least three women that love him, so, I don't think that theory holds anymore. Ah well, it was stereotypical while it lasted.

Oren -

See that fellow Tom up top? He might have something to say about your shot at the later day Bob Dylan! And I would second him! :)

But seriously, I think you make a interesting observation of Woody maybe being trapped in some separate world. I mean, word has it that he goes from shoot to shoot filming one after the other. It may be why some of his social observations seem out of touch.

And last but not least...

Piper! -

Another interesting theory: The curse of Scarlett. I was a fan of Scoop, but I know others weren't. Still, it is curious to wonder if he is kinda stuck on her. She seems really out of place, to me, in VCB. I think she's a good actress when it comes to comedies, but I haven't been won over by her dramatic acting yet... Match Point, The Black Dhalia, Lost In Translation. She seems alive when she's in a comedy and kind of blank when she's not.

Fox said...

oops! sorry for italicizing that whole last comment... don't read any emphasis into it. Just that I am bad at HTML.

MovieMan0283 said...

Well, I expected to be disappointed so maybe that's why I enjoyed it, lowered expectations at all. This and Match Point were both fairly silly though this film at least knew it (and Penelope Cruz was great in it). At least since Interiors, Allen has been taking himself too seriously, but his films are often very entertaining anyway.

In an odd way he's like Oliver Stone, in that his work often becomes ridiculous but shows talent and is enjoyable nonetheless.