Monday, April 27, 2009

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Woody Allen has made some great movies over the years, and Vicky Christina Barcelona is one of his best. While spending a summer in Barcelona, best friends Vicky and Christina come across exciting Spanish painter Juan Antonio, who promptly propositions them for a weekend getaway and possible three-some. Intrigued, Christina goes along with it, and Vicky comes to try and keep her friend from making a mistake. Later, things get further complicated by the appearances of Vicky's fiance Doug, and Juan Antonio's ex wife Maria Elena. This is somewhat familiar territory for Allen. Outside of the Spanish setting, Allen has dealt with these kind of love stories before, but never in this way. This is the most sensual movie he's ever made, oozing all aspects of love and sex in every frame. His dialog is top notch, and he gets tremendous performances from all of his actors.

Javier Bardem can be such an imposing figure onscreen. If I didn't already know how talented of an actor he was, I would've never thought the same guy could play Juan Antonio and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. In that movie he was an ominous figure of death and evil, in Vicky Christina Barcelona he's a sensitive, passionate, and charmingly sexual presence. He's so effortlessly good I think many people overlook his versatility because of the fiery performance given by his Spanish colleague Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena. It's a big showy role, and she's tremendous in it. The interplay she and Bardem have gives such a sense of history, the way they talk over one another (in two languages!), their body language when together, everything about them tells the audience that these two people really do have a lifetime of shared experiences. Surprising, given that this is her third time working with Allen, but Scarlett Johansson's role of Christina is the most underwritten of the main 4 parts. Still, she does some good work with what she's given. But the biggest surprise for me was from Rebecca Hall as Vicky. I'd seen her in a few other movies before (Frost/Nixon, The Prestige), but here the British actress dons a perfect American accent, and gives a tremendously layered performance of a woman at a crossroads in her life. She's in love with two men. Does she stay with the safe pick that she loves but has little passion for? Or does she take her chance with the spirited artist in a relationship that would likely not last?

It's Allen's best looking movie since Gordon Willis shot the gorgeous black-and-white of Manhattan, and that was 30 years ago. So much credit must go to the superb Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. That he was not nominated for an Oscar for his work is shameful. This is one of the most beautifully, sensuously photographed movies of the past few years. Of course, it helps that Aguirresarobe's photography is in support of a terrific script by Allen. He still throws in a bit of the "Woody Allen-type" character, Vicky definitely has shades of the typical main character that Allen often played in his own movies. But I never get tired of listening to Allen's intelligent characters talk their way through his movies. It sometimes seems like he's one of the few filmmakers that actually gives a shit about the dialog in their movie.
It's nice to see Allen in top form again. Even after some of the crap he's put out in the past few years, every once in a while he'll still give us a Match Point, or Sweet and Lowdown. It's not on the level of his greatest movies Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors. But even if it's not a masterpiece, I think we can happily add Vicky Christina Barcelona to the list of Allen's triumphs.

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