Sunday, September 07, 2008

Froth of the Damned

It's possible my feelings will change as the year tails out, but I'm thinking that Woody's Allen's unlikely new film, Vicky Christina Barcelona, is my favorite moviegoing experience so far this year. Sure, The Dark Knight is excellent spectacle, especially in IMAX. And I may have laughed harder throughout Tropic Thunder or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But Allen has made his best film since, well, I'll call back to 1989's Crimes & Misdemeanors. And this one is shot better.

What touched me about this new Allen opus is how well it captures that particular bohemian freedom and experimentation of youth, that time of openness and frothy decisions which you don't think will have the critical impact on your life that maybe they do. Rebecca Hall (excellent in The Prestige but the protagonist here) and Scarlett Johansson (best performance to date?) play Vicky and Christina, two friends with very different views of love, who are on that one last trip together to Barcelona, where they meet a reknown painter paid by the incredibly appealing Javier Bardem and, eventually, his psychotic ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). The rondelay of seduction leads to rather unexpected places, and ultimately a comic rondelay of the damned, although the sureness of touch makes it seem almost soft-pedaled, even as the final image takes our beautiful co-leads down.

During the first third of the movie, the most effervescent section, we're watching a movie about youth that could almost be created by a young filmmaker. It's the the twists in the second and third act that reveal the long view of a novelist, not condemning as an angry young director might, but certainly putting the knife in on the expressed theme that "only unfulfilled love can be romantic."

Along the way, with 60 year-old Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, Allen seems to rediscover the camera, even more profoundly than he did with another highly successful recent picture of his, Match Point. Since the tragedy this time is more Chekhov than Dreiser, the feeling is a hell of a lot lighter, but the shots are sumptuous and feel like discovery, whether the tourist trip to the Catalan world or the beauty of the young starlets in close-up.

Whatever the pleasures of the other movies listed above and the shared competence with Allen's latest, this is the one that feels the most like real people undergoing real character change, inasmuch as attitude changes while character remains constant. This is the movie breathing fully of life and offering the most flesh-and-blood experience in the most entertaining way, with lots of laughter but something tho take home and think about.

And, as a little bit of a reality check for those (like me) who sometimes deride auteur Allen for his flops, let it be noted that this is Woody Allen's 43rd directing effort. That kind of directorial productivity only happened back in the days of the studio factories, and now he's doing each one basically as an annual independent film. When all is said and done, considering his 100% creative control, it is a career unparalleled in the history of moviemaking.

And #44 is on the way.

No comments: