Friday, August 15, 2008
It may be Barcelona, but it's still Woody
Woody Allen visits Barcelona, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does the city justice. But Allen's new movie -- "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" -- features a less-than-appealing collection of Allen characters made even more irritating by a ubiquitous off-screen narration that seems like a substitute for real dramatic momentum.
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a definite improvement over Allen's lugubrious "Cassandra's Dream," but the movie's lightness may have more to do with its setting than with its subject or its execution. A fiery performance by Penelope Cruz, who gives the movie a much-needed kick in the pants, doesn't hurt either. Otherwise, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" amounts to 97 minutes of the usual Allen hand wringing over relationships.
This time, two friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) show up in Barcelona. They quickly run into Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter who boldly attempts to seduce both of them at the same time. Hall portrays Vicky, and it's her indecision that ladles trace elements of angst into the picture. Vicky's engaged to a successful Wall Street type, but her aroused passion -- she's not immune to Juan Antonio's charms -- threatens the stability of her engagement.
Vicky has a brief dalliance with Juan Antonio before Johansson's Cristina takes over. The relationship between Juan Antonio and Cristina seems to be going well until Juan Antonio's estranged wife (Cruz) shows up. Darned if they all don't begin living together in what seems to be a happy and apparently productive threesome.
Allen's shift to European locations has been a mixed blessing. It invigorated "Match Point," set in London, and it blows some warmth through "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," but it sometimes seems as if Allen simply has transposed his standard interests onto younger actors and foreign locations. Hall gives the least convincing performance; Johansson manages to be both pliant and assertive, and Bardem excels as an artist who softly speaks his mind, a roue who uses his lack of subterfuge as a defense against criticism.
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" isn't a bad movie, but it can be a careless one. An example: Vicky is writing her master's thesis on Catalan identity, but doesn't speak Spanish. Hey, I know higher education has hit the skids (after all I teach at a university), but Vicky's ignorance makes no sense and it serves to make her a good deal less interesting.
Aside from Cruz's amusing histrionics, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" operates at a leisurely pace as it watches its characters make a variety of ill-fated connections. Taken in the entirety of Allen's work, it's little more than occasionally amusing footnote.
TWO ADDITIONAL OPENINGS: WINE AND RELIGION
"Bottle Rocket" tells the story of a 1976 contest that established the legitimacy of California wines. The California wines beat French wines in a blind tasting held in France. The uplift that one obtains from this Napa Valley triumph proves satisfying, but the rest of the movie stumbles. Director Randall Miller muddies the waters with complications that never acquire much kick. Vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) has a tense relationship with his son Bo (Chris Pine). Bo has an interest in a young woman (Rachael Taylor) who arrives to help with the wine business. Taylor's Sam has a dalliance with Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), who works at the winery but strikes out on his own after an argument with Pullman's character. A Brit who's selling wine in France (Alan Rickman) dreams up the contest. Although none of this is especially compelling, the settings are picturesque, and, as is the way with these things, the end-of-picture contest boosts things considerably.
"Henry Poole Is Here." Director Mark Pellington has made a drab-looking inspirational movie with a Christian theme. Luke Wilson stars as Henry Poole, a deeply depressed man who moves into a home in a dreary California suburb. When a neighbor (Adriana Barazza) sees the face of Christ on an exterior wall of Poole's home, Poole's tale of redemption begins. Radha Mitchell plays Dawn, a neighbor and potential love interest. Morgan Lily portrays her daughter, a girl who no longer speaks. Pellington tries to keep the religious message from becoming too heavy handed, sustaining Poole's angry skepticism as long as he can. After a screening, a pal turned to me and asked, "Did a church pay for this?" The fact that he raised that question tells you a lot about this strangely uninspiring bit of inspirational moviemaking.
Note: When originally published the item on "Henry Poole" referred to Owen Wilson, not Luke Wilson. The error has been acknowledged and fixed. Apologies.