Woody goes on vacation to see a famous opera singer, who's contemplating an abortion, in a French Mediterranean village... or just four recent views

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Woody Allen | USA/Spain | 2008 | 97min
Getting out of Manhattan has done Woody a whole world of good. Matchpoint, set across the pond in a very unmerry old England, was a surprisingly focused, dismal work reaffirming that Allen still had his chops. His latest film, set in the eternally spry, golden hue of Barcelona, is even more of a cobweb-clearing sweep of the mausoleum Woody was rapidly sealing himself in. It’s amazing what a simple change of scenery can do.

This is precisely what Vicky Cristina Barcelona is all about: two credulous American girls, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlet Johannson), taking a holiday abroad in hopes of finding something, anything that can inspire them. What finds them is a sultry Catalan painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), and his tempestuous ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), who fascinate and repulse our heroines along with us as an audience. They embody everything our American culture is not and will never be, with their gutturally instinctive, art-loving bohemian way of life, free of the moral hang-ups that paralyze Allen’s characters. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Bardem and Cruz like Vicky and Cristina do, especially when situated in a Woody Allen movie. They’re everything his characters ever wanted to be, yet couldn’t due to a lack of courage. Simply put, the screen presence of Spain’s two most current and yes, talented, actors is what makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona so damn good.

But don’t get me wrong. Everything that makes a Woody Allen movie a Woody Allen movie is still here, namely pretentious socialites nowhere near the worth of their own useless knowledge, who do the exact opposite of their self-assured and frequently proclaimed morale (this goes for our Spaniards, too). And of course, Allen’s own signature neuroses still serve as the backbone of the story. Where his recent films depart (the murder mystery/comedy Scoop and the somber Cassandra’s Dream included) is with their inclusion of the Foreigner in the Allen canon, from a decidedly American viewpoint that proves both insightful and stereotypical in that double-edged sword sorta way so characteristic of Allen’s films. With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one gets the sense Woody finally let out a sigh and took a European vacation, yet couldn’t keep from making a movie in between his seaside piña coladas. This filmgoer hopes he has every intention of extending his holiday. 4/5

Jean-Jacques Beineix | France | 1981 | 117min
Think of this film as the cusp to the thematic concerns of Neil Jordan and Luc Besson, but that has its style rooted more firmly in classic French crime cinema. Sparse, economical and dotted with abstract moments sometimes resembling the simplicity of Jean-Pierre Melville, Diva is oddly focused on the ethical implications of audio recordings and their significance as a record of the past. The plot is derived from the chase that ensues once Jules (Frédéric Andréi) illegally records the performance of opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) and then has this unauthorized tape confused for the confessional tape of a prostitute, who planted hers into Jules’s moped satchel before being killed. Now Jules is being pursued for both recordings by the corrupt police officer in charge of the prostitution ring and Taiwanese gangsters seeking the only existing LP of Cynthia Hawkins.

In a brief interview on the DVD, Beineix (perhaps the real diva here, at one point claiming to his producers he invented the crane used in crane shots) goes great lengths in pointing out how his first film broke new ground, had a long theatrical run, is timeless, etc etc. My feelings about Diva, however, remain somewhat lukewarm. The biggest problem with the film is its villains, both the thugs of the prostitution ring and the Taiwanese gangsters. They are scarcely menacing and hardly convincing, which of course does not make me worry too much about the well being of our heroes. Their criminal acts and the innocent people implicated in their attempted cover-up matter little when compared to the much more interesting, chaste love between Jules and the diva.

The redeeming qualities of Diva lie in the questions it raises about artistic integrity. An artist as distinctive as Cynthia Hawkins will have to inevitably compromise her pride and record her voice, as her manager points out, in an effort to beat the gangsters to the punch and to capitalize on the illegal LP. The strength of her voice will not live forever, but a recording of it will. The idea of an opera diva’s first consumable album holding as much power as a prostitute’s exposé proves more exciting than the actual hubbub stirred up to obtain each track. Within the context of a mediocre French thriller, here is where Beineix can call Diva groundbreaking and where I find the film to be worth watching. 3/5

Tokyo Twilight
Yasujiro Ozu | Japan | 1957 | 140min
Boy, they weren’t kidding when they called this Ozu’s ‘darkest hour.’ Tokyo Twilight is the story of two sisters, Takako (Setsuko Hara), who is running from her unwanted child’s useless father, and Akiko (Ineko Arima), who is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. They discover the mother their father had always told them was long dead is in fact alive and well, still running the brothel she has tended to her entire life. After aborting her pregnancy and confronting her estranged mother, Akiko kills herself and Takako puts all blame for their troubled lives on their mother before returning home to an uncertain future. Pretty grim stuff, especially for Ozu, and it makes the illicit office romance central to his last film, Early Spring, look like a picnic in the park. Yet as one familiar with Ozu’s work would expect, these topics are executed as subtly as possible. In Tokyo Twilight, his direction is particularly impressive when handling the scene involving Akiko’s abortion. The ‘A’ word is never uttered once between Akiko and the surgeon who presumably will perform the procedure, and Ozu is clever to weigh the scene with enough uncertainty on Akiko’s behalf so as to make her decision unknown until several shots later (insert a succession of Ozu’s signature nature stills to convey change/transcendence), upon which Akiko seems to regret her decision and cries all alone in her bedroom.

Ozu is all about the ebb and flow of familial relations, but in Tokyo Twilight, this ebb and flow feels a little disrupted. So far through my trek of Ozu’s work, I have not yet seen more uninhibited displays of anger and sadness, nor have I encountered such a dysfunctional family in any film previous. Perhaps not surprisingly, these anomalies feel somewhat contrived and a tad melodramatic, especially in comparison to his work as a whole. Ozu is better when focused upon concepts, such as generational conflict, instead of the hard-knock tribulations of two sisters and their withdrawn parents. Tokyo Twilight is not a bad film by any means, but is missing a certain Ozu calm that awakens an introverted conversation with myself about my life and my family.

Next up, it’s Ozu in color. 3/5

La Pointe Courte
Agnès Varda | France | 1956 | 80min
La Pointe Courte has more in common with the intellectual calisthenics required by the likes of her fellow Rive Gauche filmmakers, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, than it does with, say, the leisurely bicycle jaunts of the other New Wave group, including Truffaut and sometimes Godard. Her second film, Cleo from 5 to 7, has more in common with the latter camp, but her first effort belongs entirely to the former. I’ve been anticipating this film ever since Bruce Kawin, one of my film history instructors at CU, pointed out it is the true first film of the French New Wave. Hmmm. Even before The 400 Blows? Or even Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows? Kawin and other scholars may be right about Varda’s place in history, but La Pointe Courte is nowhere near as coherent and engaging as other early New Wave(esque) films. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what Varda was going for after finishing the film and was left wanting an explanation. An explanation, thankfully, Criterion DVD extras are always willing to provide.

After watching La Pointe Courte, I discovered Varda’s intention was to mimic the narrative structure of William Faulkner’s long overlooked Wild Palms. That novel has two totally unrelated stories told side by side; one is a love story, taking place in 1938 and the other is about the ordeal of a prisoner in 1927. The two stories only physical link is a prison in Mississippi. La Pointe-Courte, a small Mediterranean village on the coast of France, is the physical setting of the two unrelated stories being told in Varda’s film; one is a love story and the other is about the political ordeal of the village fishermen.

I quickly lost interest in the love story portion of the film; the couple’s pseudo-intellectual voiceover musings on the nature of their affection and relationship comes across as phony, pompous and irrelevant. Their boring story never sits well with vignettes of a destitute village and its crumbling economy threatened by the disintegration of its sole export. Perhaps it’s not supposed to. Like Faulkner’s novel, no aesthetic or narrative device is attempted by Varda to link her stories, literally cutting from one to the other in a completely arbitrary way. The result is frustrating and dull. What might have worked in the realm of literature does not necessarily translate well to the realm of cinema. Sure, I can see why this technique blew everyone’s hats off in 1956 and why La Pointe Courte is considered the precursor to the French New Wave; it is on many levels something fresh and entirely different. Yet despite the boldness of its narrative structure and moments of amazingly journalistic cinematography reminiscent of neorealism, it lacks any real emotion (see photo below). 2/5


nervenet said...

Great stuff, Joaquin. I got nothin' to add, except that I mostly agree about Diva, that I have Tokyo Twilight coming up soon (just watched Early Spring) and that I really want to see the Allen film based on this review.

Dex said...

yeah, true that, re: allen.

Atrain said...

Man, Oh Man if I didn't want to slap the shit out of the French lovers in La Pointe. The cinematography was to die for, though.