Tag Archives: Javier Bardem

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like old Woody Allen. The defining characteristic implying a throwback is the narration… which actually isn’t a throwback to old Woody Allen, but to Jules and Jim or Two English Girls. The film could practically be called Two American Girls, but I think then it’d be a little obvious. The only other major influence–and this one is a little of a stretch–is one shot owing a lot to Blow Up (wind in the trees and all, I always think Blow Up).

But the film’s not really a throwback to 1970s Allen. It’s too different. There’s a definite lack of main character. The film’s attention oscillates between Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson (playing the titular characters) to the point each becomes forgotten while attention is on the other, even if there’s discussion of the character.

Hall’s the film’s closest thing to a main character. Between her uncertainty toward fiancé Chris Messina (in the film’s only comedic performance) and her infatuation with Javier Bardem, Hall gets the film’s best scenes. She’s the only actor who Allen pauses on, making sure her pensive, thoughtful expressions make an impression on the viewer. He does it a couple times I remember; her blinks are that wonderful cinema combination, when the actor and the director achieve something because of one another.

For the first half of the film, Bardem has little to do but be seductive, intelligent and beguiling. He does all three wonderfully, charming both Hall, Johansson and the viewer. He’s a strange character for Allen, as he’s so utterly devoid of cynicism. The film–and Bardem’s role in it–changes quite a bit when Penélope Cruz shows up.

Cruz’s character is an offscreen personality from almost the beginning of the film, so her actual presence is going to have to change things, but somehow–even as events become more sensational–they become less interesting. Johansson’s solid in the film, but she’s second fiddle to Hall here. Comparing the performances, what Johansson does with a big dramatic plot and what Hall does with a quiet one… it’s an incredible difference. Allen seems to notice too, not really giving Johansson any real meat.

And that Boca Burger mentality is what hurts the film. Allen starts to bring it around in the end, getting into real problems for Hall, but then lets the sensationalism back in. It’s too much of an exercise. He’s not trying for anything here, just spinning his wheels–and he spins them incredibly well, but the beginning suggests he’s going to bring it all together in the end. He sort of abandons Johansson at one point, when she’s become just too passive in the action.

Some of the problem is Cruz. She’s excellent in the film (a surprise), but she inhabits her role. The character’s so big before Cruz even appears on screen, once she does and is successful, it’s just too much. Given most of her scenes are with Johansson… the entire film goes adrift for a little while. Until Hall comes back and things are fine… and then Cruz comes back and they aren’t.

It’s a fantastic film–probably the most successful of Allen’s more recent narrative experiments–but his lack of interest in anything but execution is painfully obvious.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Alain Bainée; produced by Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley and Stephen Tenenbaum; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Weinstein Company.

Starring Javier Bardem (Juan Antonio), Patricia Clarkson (Judy Nash), Penélope Cruz (Maria Elena), Kevin Dunn (Mark Nash), Rebecca Hall (Vicky), Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) and Chris Messina (Doug).


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No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen)

There’s something untranslatable about the last line of a novel. Even though maybe it shouldn’t, it essentially sums up everything–not just the scene or the story or the characters, but the reader’s experience as well… (whether the writer’s experience of writing the book is summed up in the line is, obviously, immaterial). With No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers translate that moment in to filmic terms, which is a film first in my experience.

The film is a masterful immersive experience, the wide open Texas plains, the gradual, somehow disinterested narrative, Tommy Lee Jones’s soothing performance of an also somewhat disinterested character. The minute Josh Brolin walks across the plains, looking for the money he and the viewer knows must be there, No Country opens up and swallows the viewer. The maw invisibly closes. Javier Bardem is a red herring. While he’s fantastic, the character is fantastic, he’s not the compelling aspect. Brolin’s generally unlikable character, however, his experience–for much of the film–is the viewer’s reference point. The Coen’s don’t even need to do it in a standard way (I kept thinking about Robocop, how Verhoeven realized he needed to make the violence as graphic as possible to make the audience care about a character they’d known fifteen minutes)… I think they’ve got it down just from Brolin spying the money. The viewer cares about him because, for a few key moments, he or she and the character are the same–realizing the same things at the same time, thinking the same thing. It’s not big realization stuff, it’s empirical observation followed by a conclusion, which is different.

I’m wondering if that immersion is solely responsible for the Coen’s handling of the passing of time. No Country for Old Men doesn’t have a pace, it doesn’t go fast, it doesn’t drag. It just plays out. So I guess the playing out is a result of the immersion… But there are no rises or falls in action, in tenseness. The tenseness is on the scene level. There’s oddly no air of dread hanging over Old Men all together–something one of the characters brings up near the end: what, exactly, could happen differently. There’s no expectation of the coming scene. There’s some foreshadowing, but it’s not the same thing. No Country doesn’t create any anticipation… again, it’s an immersion result. Such effective immersion isn’t a new thing, but in a thriller, one would think it was cross-purpose. But it’s not. No Country for Old Men simply transcends the genre, possibly without even thinking about it (the Coens, usually so ready to be recognized for the dissimilarities between their films, draw no attention to No Country’s genre… in many ways, it’s the least Coen-identified film of theirs in fifteen years).

They also learned how to cast. Usually, their casts draw attention to themselves through familiarity or peculiarity (mostly how distracting William H. Macy got playing his standard in Fargo). Here, not at all. While Jones is playing a somewhat familiar role (though I’ve never actually seen him play a Texas lawman before), he’s doing something entirely different–he’s not a reluctant everyman compelled to act. Javier Bardem takes the film’s hardest role and makes it look like the easiest (he takes his character, a filmic villain only marginally different from Halloween’s Michael Myers and the like, and makes him real). Brolin’s deceptively good as the not-quite protagonist–every time I thought anyone could do the job, he did something to make himself essential.

When No Country started and was in Texas, I tried to force myself to look for some connection to Blood Simple. I quickly gave up, because–as usual–the Coen Brothers were doing something different. Except with this one, they put the film before their name brand quirkiness.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis) and Stephen Root (Man Who Hires Wells).


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