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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Vintage Woody

Earlier this year, with the release of Cassandra’s Dream,I wrote a column about how I felt Woody Allen would never be finished despite the fact that people have repeatedly tried to write him off every time he makes a film that isn’t ‘like his older, funnier ones.’ I explained that one of the things I loved about Woody was that each of his films was attempting something different, but each of them imbued with the spirit of their creator. It is easy to tell that a film is a Woody Allen picture, yet each of them are uniquely different; the creator of Sweet and Lowdown is the same guy who directed Love and Death.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a gem of a film, a vintage Woody Allen picture that is most reminiscent of the pictures he made in the late 70’s. After three pictures shot in the gloom of foggy London, he has chosen the sun-soaked Barcelona for a film that is far more visually stimulating than perhaps any in his career. But more importantly, the new location seems to have invigorated Woody to make a film that is about the necessity of being carefree and spontaneous in life. Being looser doesn’t necessarily change your life and point you in the right direction, but in Woody’s newest film, going with the flow helps you realize where you shouldn’t be.

The film follows the titular girls Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, in her third collaboration with the Woodman), two Americans on holiday for the summer in Barcelona. They are staying with family friends (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn) who are involved in the art-world. At a gallery opening, they catch sight of the handsome painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who later propositions the both of them to come for a little trip with him and to, well, have sex with him.

Vicky is the more practical of the two girls and she is engaged to a handsome, wealthy, practical man while Cristina is the more adventurous sort who is definitely single and ready to mingle. But our impressions of the girls is subverted continually throughout the film, especially once Juan Antonio’s tempestuous ex-girlfriend Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) shows up and the relationships between each of the four characters changes slightly and then drastically.

For the first twenty-five minutes or so of the film, I was trying to figure out who the Woody Allen stand-in was supposed to be. At first, I was convinced it was Vicky because she is fairly worried and wary but then Cristina has an ulcer, so I thought it was her. Nobody stutters or stammers too much and nobody really had his mannerisms, which is a first for a Woody Allen film. Even actors as great as Sean Penn (in Sweet and Lowdown) and Kenneth Branagh (in Celebrity) couldn’t help but be a bit Woodyish when they were in films that didn’t star Woody himself. And about halfway through the film, I realized that there is no Woody Allen character, yet each of them have little bits of Woody in their bones. Because of this fact, it makes the film that much more exciting because we as an audience don’t know where this particular film is going and it goes to some pretty unexpected places.

Another thing that struck me was the use of a third-person narrator, which Woody has only employed sparingly in the past and usually with a narrator that we actually meet as a character (as in the diner folks of Broadway Danny Rose or the musicians in Sweet and Lowdown). And I must confess that I’m a sucker for third-person narration in film (as in Barry Lyndon or more recently Little Children) because it enables the filmmakers to skip past a lot of exposition and cuts right to the part that are integral to the story. This is a pretty compelling tactic for a filmmaker like Woody Allen to use because usually the minutiae of conversation is something that he focuses on, but here he sticks only to what is vital.

Classifying this film is a difficult task. It is romantic, dramatic, but it is always just a little bit funny. But the comedy in this film is not the typical Woody shtick; rather, it comes from a very real – and sometimes awkward – place. One scene that sticks out to me is the scene in which meet Penelope Cruz’s character for the first time after she has been through a rather harrowing ordeal; I wondered how Woody was going to have this serious matter fit into a film that had been rather frothy up until that point. The way he makes it work is by having Bardem try to play it cool while obviously being incredibly frazzled and by having Johansson lose her cool completely. Cruz later goes on to provide much comic relief later in the film, but in this scene she is the straight man as Johansson and Bardem take turns being exasperated. It’s a classic Woody scene that doesn’t have a single “Woody” line in it.

The film walks a very fine line between a variety of genres and none of it feels out of place. When there is a romantic scene, it feels just as right as the scene involving gunplay. Cut through all of it is a sense of humor that is helped by that third-person narrator, calmly assuring us that all will be okay because by the end of the film each of the characters will pretty much be right back where they started from. Oh, they’ll be changed down to their very core, but they’re the only ones that know it.

The performances in this film are terrific across the board. I had been down on Johansson after her last few roles, but she is absolutely terrific in this film, giving her best performance sinceMatch Point or maybe even Lost in Translation. A lot of folks will focus on the fire thatPenelope Cruz and Javier Bardem bring to their roles – and they are excellent indeed, deserving of all praise that they receive – but I was most impressed by Rebecca Hall.

Hall was someone who I vaguely remembered from The Prestige and Starter for 10, but here she has the most difficult role in the film. She doesn’t get to be the free spirit that Johansson does or to be full of passion and heat like Cruz and Bardem. Instead she has to play a role that requires a lot of interior change that she must somehow externalize and she does it with aplomb. The film really picks up when Cruz shows up a half hour into the proceedings, but it was already going pretty good up until that point because of how great Hall and Johansson are.

Once again, this is a beautiful looking film and Woody is such an underrated visual filmmaker, but his work here with Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe is stunning. There are so many sequences in the film that tell a lot of story using only a few images, whether it be close-ups on actors’ faces or sweeping shots of the wonderful architecture. I’m excited to see what Aguirresarobe does in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road later this year.

For filmmakers, it is always important for them to be moving forward, trying their best to innovate with each new picture. Woody Allen has continually been a filmmaker that is unafraid of trying new tricks, even as he celebrates his 72nd birthday. Most filmmakers, besides the odd Luis Bunuel here and there, have settled into a certain style and rhythm by then. But not Woody, he constantly pushes himself, whether it’s making a musical set in New York City and Europe or a crime picture set in London.

With his newest film Woody has actually dipped back into the past, finally making the film that would slot in perfectly between Annie Hall and Manhattan. In reality, he made his Ingmar Bergman homage Interiors which is an interesting film, but one that always fit into that particular period of his career like a jagged, awkward puzzle piece. Between the cold-hearted realism of Annie Hall and the hopefulness of Manhattan is Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film that reminds us that in order to grow as people, sometimes we have to stumble a little bit. Sometimes that stumbling includes a terribly romantic affair and sometimes it includes a gunshot to the hand, but those missteps help gets us back on track. And for all those who are quick to write off Woody for every misstep, they’ll know when they see this film that he’s back on track. Although I would argue that he always has been.

– Noah Forrest
August 12, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon