With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen has made a movie to rival his best. Elsewhere, In Search of a Midnight Kiss and The Exiles show two different portraits of Los Angeles.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a magnificent movie. That's not being said enough – below, I try to explain why.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (The Weinstein Company/MGM)
For a while now, the complaint has been that Woody Allen was too old to be in his movies – that people would only go see them if he wasn't in them to drag down their quality level. Now I'm starting to wonder if critics would be better off not knowing that he had even made his recent movies. Walking in to a "Woody Allen film" these days, they can only see the old problems and their old reservations. When he makes a mediocre movie, they're probably right, but when he makes something like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it's demeaning and shortsighted.
The fact that intelligent reviewers are actually saying things like "it's not funny enough" or (even better) "why does there have to be so many beautiful young women in it?" is just proof that despite their frustrated wishes that Allen would grow up and make mature movies, they're not adept enough to see them when they arrive.
To get to the two complaints, Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn't that funny because it's not really a comedy. Not all Woody Allen dramas come with dead bodies and monologues about the absence of God – not since Hannah and Her Sisters or Husbands and Wives has he looked this thoughtfully at the difficulties of making love last. And to answer the other complaint, beyond replying, "Gee, you never get on Almodovar's or Altman's case about all the pretty young women" let me say that the beauty of the women (and more importantly, the man) is the point. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the physical embodiment of every young person's dream of going off to an exotic foreign country and meeting your greatest lover, but Allen (as some of you might recall from The Purple Rose of Cairo) enjoys taking people's fantasies and plopping them down in real life to see how they would work out. With that in mind, Javier Bardem's character wouldn't approach Vicky and Cristina if they weren't gorgeous and, likewise, they wouldn't accept his advances if he wasn't. But nobody in this movie is an empty airhead – Bardem in particular is astounding, becoming the impossibly sexy Latin lover whose art-fueled quest for passion is so complete that, really, who wouldn't fall for him? (Woody Allen gave us the term kamikaze women – now he shows that there can be men like this, too.)
The sexual frankness of the film is handled with sincerity and not one ounce of creepiness, and Vicky and Cristina's divergent paths to happiness are explored with a great deal of sympathy and worry. This is a layered, nuanced, melancholy look at love's impermanence that is impeccably acted from top to bottom, and it has a sort of unexplainable resonance that seems to be coming from the actors fully controlling their characters. Woody Allen will be 73 years old this December – anybody else making this movie would be lauded for how masterful it is from a man at such an advanced age. Not Woody – he's asked why he's such a pervert and keeps putting Scarlett Johansson in his movies. The folks who claimed that Match Point was the renaissance were wrong. This is it. In Search of a Midnight Kiss (IFC Films)
Contrary to reports, this isn’t L.A.’s answer to Manhattan, which is a good thing. L.A. feels inferior to New York in so many ways already – there’s no reason to add another log to that fire. But it’s also not Swingers – another good thing. It’s been 12 years since that definitive ‘90s document came out, and the city has changed – particularly its entertainment culture and its economic realities. In Search of a Midnight Kiss is a film of swearing and sexually-frank dialogue, which go a long way to cutting through the preciousness of its sometimes-forced romantic tone – these characters on their New Year’s Eve blind date probably don’t even like Woody Allen, and they’d almost certainly view Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn are celebrities, not like-minded souls. Rough around the edges, high on let’s-just-try-it spirit, In Search of a Midnight Kiss is a nostalgic film in a lot of ways, but for certain American art-house fans, it’ll also be a passageway to the ‘90s indie romantic comedy-dramas of Richard Linklater or even Whit Stillman – talky, thoughtful character pieces that sometimes added up to something, sometimes didn’t. I’m glad people aren’t overrating it – that way, writer-director Alex Holdridge will have somewhere to go from here.
Transsiberian (First Look)
Director Brad Anderson's thriller may not make logical sense all the time, but its thematic sense is pretty potent throughout. Twisty more in its ideas than its developments – although there are some fun nasty things that happen, too – Transsiberian somehow survives miscasting both of its main leads. Emily Mortimer gets stronger as she goes along – I can't say why specifically since it would give away too much – but she simply doesn't have the necessary heft to pull off her character's backstory. And Woody Harrelson's sweet-natured religious husband is a departure from his bad-ass film persona but doesn't recall the old Woody Boyd Cheers days either – dopey he can do, but earnestly dull doesn't quite suit him. And yet I had a ball, and that's all due to Anderson's themes-first approach. We're not surprised by stories of American tourists getting up to their ears in trouble while trolling around foreign lands – that's for the Hostel crowd. Instead, the movie glances off several ideas – the permanence of guilt, the ambiguity of what makes a "good person" good, the things we just don't want to know about the people we love – without feeling the need to commit to them. Adding to its appeal is the way it's shot – all full of dark mystery and gritty unpleasantness. In some ways, this thriller's intellectual concerns bring to mind David Mamet's work, and like with Mamet, you either shake your head at the vaguely stupid ending or you tell yourself it's a metaphor for something. Far from amazing, but really, really distinctive, Transsiberian stays with you, even while you're telling yourself that, really, the ending does sorta work as a metaphor for something.
The Exiles (Milestone Films)
After my screening of The Exiles, a Native American woman who lived in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles at the time of the movie (which was made in 1961 and then failed to find a theatrical release) informed the audience that director Kent Mackenzie's depiction of Native Americans wasn't entirely accurate: They weren't all drunks. The funny thing is that I didn't consider The Exiles to be an authoritative account of Native American disillusionment in L.A.'s once-thriving downtown area. Mackenzie was a Brit who went to USC and fell in love with the city's thriving hustle-bustle. As a dramatist, he's rather simplistic, but on the strength of The Exiles it’s clear the guy could create a mood. Like few movies I can think of, The Exiles captures the headlong rush of being young and going off into the night looking for excitement – who knows where you'll go, who'll you meet and where you'll end up? The performances are a little awkward – these were non-professionals – but when the film just follows them from place to place, it has the loose energy people associate with early Scorsese or, I dunno, I Vitelloni. But the film's major contribution is its photography. I don't think Los Angeles has ever looked better –the black-and-white nighttime images will single-handedly convert anyone who wonders why older Angeleno residents get moony about the vitality of postwar downtown. The Exiles isn't really just about the Native American experience anymore – it's about that city that's gone, gone, gone.
Chop Shop (Koch Lorber Home Video)
Whether it’s In Between Days, Day Night Day Night or Frozen River, the last few years have given us several striking independent films featuring marginalized members of society, often minorities, whose daily struggles are dramatized in a bone-dry realistic manner. Chop Shop is part of that group, and while I don’t want to lump them all in together and generalize, the film does represent the strengths and less-acknowledged weaknesses of this trend. The strengths are obvious. Playing a 12-year-old Latino boy eking out a living among the chop shops of Queens, Alejandro Polanco is unlike just about any child actor we’re going to see this year. He’s not adorable, but he’s extremely charming – when he’s not cold as ice while conducting business (whether legal or illegal), he can be warm and loving. And director Ramin Bahrani (who also did Man Push Cart) immerses us in a world of poverty that we tend to look past when we’re getting our car fixed by the local mechanic. Bahrani conjures that world and allows us to see how it operates – and he’s not interested in shock value or simple tsk-tsking. But while I was affected by Chop Shop – particularly, in its depiction of how poverty teaches people to be cruel and selfish because there’s no other way to survive – I found myself a little disengaged because it doesn’t quite work as a narrative. It’s not that we don’t care about this young boy – it’s that we can sorta guess the plot’s contours before the specifics present themselves. Things will only get worse for our young hero, and in a way, Chop Shop is a corrective to would-be inspiring homeless movies like The Pursuit of Happyness. But Bahrani risks predictability. I really admired Chop Shop and got involved with what was happening – but I don’t think it ever surprised me.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.