Saturday, February 7, 2009

Movie #15: Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)

For all her fame, Scarlett Johansson doesn't really appear in a lot of popular movies. And when she does (NANNY DIARIES, HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU), they're typically pretty bad.

Use her correctly, though, and she's a charming presence who can more than hold her own in a scene. Woody Allen seems to know this, and also knows that having Johnasson as his Muse seems to have reinvigorated him. VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is his best film in years, a return to the comedic drama that he did best in films like HANNAH AND HER SISTERS.

Vicky and Christina are best friends who have the opportunity to spend the summer with Vicky's aunt and uncle in Barcelona. Vicky (Rebbecca Hall, in what kind of passes for the Woody Allen role) is the logical, sound type, engaged to be married to a man she says is stable and successful. Christina is the passionate risk taker, and Johansson embodies her with a free spirit that is instantly alluring without being sleazy. Allen takes the Spanish city and films it with an intimacy that marks all of his New York films, and it becomes as much as character as the people who inhabit it. They go out to dinner and meet Javier Bardem, a painter who truthfully tells them he would like them to fly away with his for a weekend of food, art, and sex. Vicky is disgusted, Christina intrigued, and they go. What happens over the course of the weekend is surprising and just the beginning of two months of discovery about what its is each other believes they want and what they actually need.

All this and we don't even physically get to see Penelope Cruz until halfway through the picture. She is a constant presence, Bardem's ex-wife, who perhaps tried to kill her husband and has a history of mental illness. When she finally appears she is a whirlwind of emotion, and her influence on the lives of everyone take the film in some unexpected directions, least of all the much talked-about 3-way between Cruz, Bardem and Johnasson.

Woody Allen has been making great films for so many years, it shouldn't be a surprise that he can still pull it off so late in the game. But it is, and VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is a wonderful film that shouldn't be missed.

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