August 23, 2008

REVIEW: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (A-)

Background: Woody Allen has been through the wringer the last few years. Loyal fans and critics have attacked his recent films like a scorned lover, from Match Point (which I loved) to Scoop (which I didn't see) t0 most recently, Cassandra's Dream, which was just lackluster. For the third time in the last four movies, Allen features Scarlett Johansson (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Prestige), but he also adds newcomer Rebecca Hall (also in The Prestige) and Patricia Clarkson (Married Life). The two younger actresses are somewhat dangerously thrown into the mix with emerging Oscar heavyweights Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penelope Cruz (Volver). Filmed entirely on location in Barcelona and Oviedo, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is sure to wildly increase Study Abroad in Spain applications from American women for years to come.

Synopsis : Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are American twenty-somethings spending the summer in Barcelona, Vicky to study Catalan culture, and Cristina to study whatever she happens upon. Vicky is mature, ambitious, and engaged to be married to Doug (Chris Messina), a New York elitist. Cristina is carefree and bohemian; a dreamer who embraces moral relativism. When Juan Antonio (Bardem), a local artist with a widely publicized failed marriage, invites the women for a sightseeing and lovemaking weekend in Oviedo, it's a no-chance for Vicky and a no-brainer for Cristina. They accept, of course, and both begin affairs with Juan Antonio, Vicky's in private and Cristina's in public. What would become a typical forbidden love story becomes quite the opposite when Doug suddenly arrives in Barcelona, followed closely behind by the return of Maria Elena (Cruz), Juan Antonio's ex-wife. Whose fidelity will last as the summer of love comes to an end?

I Loved:
+ The first scene with Bardem at the late dinner: The Proposition. (I actually started laughing out loud, Anton Chigurh appeared in that scene for a second until I saw him as Juan Antonio).
+ The warmth, richness, and texture of the production. Woody Allen's writing + beautiful location + perfect music = gold.

I Liked:
+ Penelope Cruz's fiery passion, especially in the kitchen/washing dishes scene.
+ The narration - a lot. It's always a gamble, but it succeeded for me in the same way as the narration in The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford.

I Disliked:
- Scarlett Johansson - increasingly, I find her less and less of an "actress" and more and more of a celebrity playing in movies.

I Hated:
- Doug, the annoying upper-cruster with all the right intentions about love but, sadly, all the wrong ideas about success.

Writing - 10
Acting - 9
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 3

Total: 45/50= 90% = A-

Last Word: What is about Woody Allen's writing that makes me enjoy spending time with the characters in his films, who, were I to meet in real life, I would otherwise most certainly avoid? Part of it is the sheer amount of dialogue we have with these characters. The more you get to know someone, obviously, the better you can empathize with their issues. But the other part of it is Allen's unique talent for adding depth to his characters and including me in conversations that I never actually have but I always imagine are having at the table next to me. He's one of only a handful of screenwriters who can engage the viewer so intimately in, for example, a 10-minute conversation between two characters simply sitting at a table.

In short, he writes honestly, and it translates
naturally to sharp, subtle comedy and a surprising amount of real-life relevance. More than once in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I was reminded of last year's tragically underrated 2 Days in Paris. I have to admit, that film was both funnier and more emotionally raw than Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but it wasn't quite as polished and it didn't have that indescribable Allen-esque familiarity that makes his films so warm - nor did it have the absolutely showstopping presence of Penelope Cruz.

Consider the legendary director back to his old form. He's proven that with the right players, the right story, and the right location, he can still deliver the goods. My hopes are high for next year's Whatever Works, which boasts a solid cast in my opinion, and more importantly marks Allen's long-overdue return to Greenwich Village.


  1. Well, I'm very pleased that you're on my side of the fence on this one, Danny.

    It's great that the master is learning a few new tricks to add to his massive repertoire. As brilliant as Mr. Allen is, I didn't even think it would be possible at this stage of the game. He has pulled himself out of the shallow hole he's dug with the seemingly endless mediocrities that he's constructed this century.

    He's back to his old greatness. But with a brand new style.

    Who would have thunk it...?

    However, it saddens me that you're not defending the lovely SCARLETT. WOODY thinks that she's brilliant, that she can do anything and that she's one of America's most important young actors.

    I certainly wouldn't go THAT far.

    She's been wildly uneven. But with Match Point (a film that I detested spectacularly aside from her passionate presence), her stunning performance in THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRl AND NOW THIS, I think the sensuous green eyed vixen has finally hit her stride.

    True...Ms. Hall, Ms. Cruz and Mr. Bardem are all fantastic. But Ms. Johansson is definitely playing at their level. EASILY.

    That JAVIER thing was wickedly funny. Would make a great SNL sketch. He could approach two beautiful young women at a table (MINUS that fricking ghoulish hair cut - with the cattle stunner behind his back) and after he's made his intentions clear, he could lean a little closer to them and whisper, "Call it, friendo."

    Your review actually restores my faith in humanity. You gave VCB an A-. Craig and I gave it four stars. Nick has yet to go but I THINK I can predict how this will all shake out.

    Regardless of other bloggers (or any other miscellaneous opinions) doesn't this remind you of...MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS?

    It's great to be in the midst of a group of boys who really know what's going on in the world.

    Now if only we could get CHRISTIAN to go to the theatre a little more often....

  2. Believe it or not I have to yet to read one word that you or anyone else has written about this. I have no idea what the consensus has been, other than that it is more positive than negative (but now you're making me think I'm in the minority, like MBN...). A lot of reviews to catch up on. Somehow everybody had theirs up immediately!

    Well I've only seen about half of Allen's filmography - maybe half at most. I need to catch up on most of his 80's works for sure. That being said, this reminded me just a little bit of the feeling I had with Annie Hall and Manhattan, and that's a good thing.

    "He's back to his old greatness. But with a brand new style." Maybe that's the best way to put it.

    I know that you did speak highly of Johansson in Boleyn, and I didn't see it. I even didn't mind her in Match Point (definitely a contentious movie), and I actually thought she was the highlight of Ghost World.

    But something's just not clicking for me anymore. I may have been a little too critical here (she didn't ruin anything, and maybe my issues were with her character more than Johansson herself), but I still haven't seen her progress much as an actress. I don't know, maybe I'm just surrounded by too many guys who fawn over her and I get mixed up thinking they're championing her acting ability...

    I've also had some friends who've worked with her (as part of a certain political campaign) come away with a bad impression. Nothing to do with this movie of course, but I'm just admitting subconscious issues that I can identify.

    Seriously, for the first 5 seconds of Bardem at the table, I was kind of hoping for a coin flip to decide the matter.

  3. Really nice review, Daniel.

    I was not nearly as won over but I did enjoy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and I do consider it Allen's best work in quite a long while. Nevertheless, it still suffers from some of Allen's most unfortunate weaknesses. I'm pleased that Allen has, ironically, "come back home" (in Barcelona, haha) thematically, but the characters are--save Bardem, and Cruz--all such tropes And, unlike you, I detested the narration. It felt completely superfluous at best, but I suppose I can see how someone could find it acceptable, or even a success. Craig pointed to David Denby comparing it to Truffaut, and that makes sense considering the Jules et Jim connection/homage, but it still doesn't work for me.

    I have to say, I concur with you with regards to Johansson. And, as I wrote in my review--interestingly, I almost think Allen, whether consciously or not, seems to be belittling her in the roles he gives her in his films. Yet again she's a failing artist.

    I've seen Allen's entire filmography, more than half of his works multiple times. I'd place Vicky Cristina Barcelona in the significant pile of solid but flawed outings. Match Point lessens with each viewing, though, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona gets by on Bardem-Cruz and some moments of freshness, so I think this is his best film in at least seven years. I do find it frustrating because I think it could have been one of his truly exceptional, great pieces.

  4. Has anyone seen my least favourite record?

    Oh, there it is, let me put it on.

    “I cannot wait to see this one.”

  5. Daniel -

    I didn't like it as much as you - like Alexander, I hated the narration and thought most of the characters (save Bardem and Cruz)were cliched. But I do agree with you about Scarlett Johannson.

    And this: "Allen's unique talent for... including me in conversations that I never actually have but I always imagine are having at the table next to me"- is a pretty brilliant encapsulation of what I've always loved about Woody's writing.

  6. Glad this one worked for you Daniel.

    "What is about Woody Allen's writing that makes me enjoy spending time with the characters in his films, who, were I to meet in real life, I would otherwise most certainly avoid?"

    That's an interesting question because on the surface it would be really easy to hate these characters, but I found myself liking them. Even annoying Doug ultimately had his good points.

    Maybe it's nice to see characters who are flawed rather than perfect.

    As for Scarlett, maybe I'm just blinded by her loveliness, but she worked for me in this role in this movie.

  7. Danny, VCB is currently at a 79% positive rating over at RT. Largely good reviews with a sizable minority who were unimpressed.

    YES, there are certainly more people on the bandwagon this time around.

    What I actually meant was that MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS is the SAME TYPE OF FILM as VCB (lush, romantic, sensual, rather melancholy, both of them made for the heat and languid lust of summertime - it's just that MBN has a much more hopeful conclusion)- and exactly like MBN, you, Craig and myself are on PRECISELY the same page.

    So I'd be willing to bet a LOT of money that Nick will end up on our side as well. I'm extremely confident that Christian would love this as well.

    So all's right with us and our particular partners in crime, as it were. I'll be the BONNIE PARKER for our little gang.

    You knew I would be. FAYE'S the coolest green eyed blonde around.

    Nicky, you told me that you're seeing VCB much earlier than most out in your neck of the woods. Don't be perturbed, babe. All good things to those who wait...and it all will change for the better.


    As far as Ms. Johansson goes, I haven't met her and I don't know anyone that knows her.

    But I do pay very close attention to the people in my circle (I, of course, know some people in LA that run with the rich and the beautiful) and if I hear about incidents and situations from them - flattering or not - then I know that they're generally trustworthy.

    I always try to keep an open mind because I am aware that everyone goes through stuff, that people have bad days and that EVERYBODY is entitled to a prima donna meltdown now and then.

    I've had a few in my day so I know...

    I don't want to judge too harshly. My own experiences with famous people have been very positive.

    But some of those individuals are just hiding behind highly constructed personas that bear no resemblance to who they really are. So it's tough to know. Seeing as you can't ever believe the press.

    All I'm saying is: there are some people that I've always been big fans of...and I may not be if I was aware of the entire story.

    You just never know....

  8. I like your well-reasoned opinion, Alexander. Your insights on the characters are pretty indefensible considering you've seen every one of Allen's films.

    Like you and Pat, I typically don't like narration that much, but I thought that here, as in Jesse James, it was the quickest way to get us the most information. It could be considered lazy, I suppose, but I think it also helped keep the pace up.

    I agree about the likability factor, Craig, but I guess it was just a little too undeveloped for me for Cristina and Doug.

    Anyway, those of us who enjoy Allen's writing (sounds like everybody) need to read this now. Drop everything and read it now.

    Well said, Miranda, both about the MBN factor (that completely makes sense) and the defense of Johansson. I have little problem with who she is, but I just haven't been wowed by her acting, though again we've seen different examples.

    And yes, Nick is definitely going to dig this one.

  9. Yes!!!!! I love thee old scoring system!! Sorry Pards... even though I read em, I prefer the old as opposed to the 3oo words. I am moving to Milwaukee in 5 days!!! You and Ang should come with!! I am moving to a place that is 4 blocks from the Landmark Oriental!!! You're so jealous right now. YES!!!!

  10. I started reading that piece by Woody Allen but when he said he met Penelope Cruz, and then said what he said about that, I passed out.

  11. Thanks, Beavy. I've got a new review format on the way that I think will please all sides. I can't believe you're already outie. Sorry to say our plans don't include Sconnie right now, but maybe we'll come down for a visit some weekend. Anyway, you better check back here after you see everything at the Oriental. I'll one up you - I'm going to be within a few blocks of the Uptown and Lagoon in a couple weeks. Same street as Patty Boy! Just about few blocks further south. See ya at OC...

    It caught me by surprise, too, Alexander. Hilarious.

  12. Beautiful review, Daniel. I just got around to seeing this last night. Absolutely delightful. And you are so right on about Juan Antonio's initial approach of the women; I was all, "watch out, he's got an air gun!"

  13. There were certain ways he'd pause thinking like Chigurh, but his character was so warm and charismatic.

    It's a testament to his perf in No Country that it's so unforgettable and a further testament to his skill that he was ultimately able to get you to mostly forget about it.

    I've gotta see this one again. Maybe it wasn't perfect, but it was one of the more enjoyable american movies of summer for me.

  14. Thank you, Nayana. I look forward to your review if it materializes.

    I really only saw Chigurh for like 5 seconds, and after that he was gone. Like you say, Craig, that he's able to so easily slip into different characters is pretty remarkable.

    I'd see it again someday, maybe try to pick up on more of the subtle comedy.

  15. Match Point - BUST!
    Cassandra's Dream - SUPER BUST!
    VCB - Delightful!

    I loved - Penelope Cruz' performance which hasn't been talked about enough in this post. She was outstanding. I also loved the bohemian/romantic setting is Spain that actually brings you there, especially the scenes with the Spanish guitar players. I also loved that I was the only person in the whole theatre, love when that happens! (except the sonsabitches forget to turn the lights down)

    I liked - The narration. I agree that it worked very well in this film.

    I disliked - I also agree with Daniel that Scarlett didn't seem to stand up with the performances of the other characters.

    Bottom line - I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

  16. Yes, Beav! You better be at The Oriental every week!

    You'll be writing reviews before you know it, pards...

  17. I really enjoyed this as I do most of Woody's films, but thought the narration beyond superflous: "Then they had a delightful lunch."

    I'd like to see Allen do a whole film in a foreign language.

  18. Lol, yeah I do remember that one sticking out a bit, Christian. On balance I liked the narration, though.

    Good call on the foreign film. I'd like to see Allen do a stand-up routine!

  19. Now this I loved. Everything about it. Totally Allen-esuqe as you note, a return to form for him indeed. Cruz was brilliant, deserving of an Oscar nomination good. Rebecca Hall was great too, I loved her sarcastic, pessimistic attitude and how quickly it faded after her one night of pre-marital passion. And my god how stunning were the locations? And the music? Love me some Spanish guitar soon. I can totally see myself having a love affair with and in Barcelona some day. For sure. Hopefully I can review this one of these days.

  20. It's a lot closer to you than me, Nick - get up there before it's swarmed with crowds!

    Incidentally, I got an email from some travel company asking me to help them promote their VCB "on location" tour of Barcelona. Maybe I should have done it, but I would have just become too mad thinking about not actually going on it.

    I wonder if VCB will last come award season. I feel like it's getting lost in the shuffle of the fall/winter madness now.


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