Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Woody Allen Movie Reviewed by a Student in an Earlier Class

Español: Estatua dedicada a Woody Allen en Ovi...
Español: Estatua dedicada a Woody Allen en Oviedo, Asturias. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arts Reporting
February 16, 2009

The Woody Allen Letdown of the Century
***** (2/5 Stars)
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is Woody Allen’s fantasy, the overindulgence of a classic chauvinist craving stunning young women in unrealistic circumstances. Her thesis: Not everything in the review refers to the first sentence, but most of the review does. It’s a review with a strong POV that draws on interpreting Allen’s earlier movies – and indirectly his life – as a basis for very personal judgment of this particular movie. The legendary neurotic and romance obsessed director of film staples including “Annie Hall,” “Sleeper” and “Manhattan” reinvents his tired cultural commentary and sexual desires for a new audience. She generalizes about the consensus concerning his status, and I think she gets it right. That is, Woody Allen was once a very famous director, considered one of the best, which judgment I've read hundreds of times. So I don’t say: sez who? The film masquerades as something new – young cast, foreign location, but at the end of the day it’s just another failed attempt to revive his lost charm. Oh, she’s harsh. Harsh reads well if you back it up.

Now we get summary – but only after she’s explained her basic take which gives her summary context. We know where she’s headed, and we are attentive to the plot details she includes. The film follows two beautiful young women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) on a summer vacation to Barcelona, Spain. The college friends lead conflicting lifestyles, but seemingly more importantly, they seek very different fulfillment from love. Vicky craves seriousness and stability, while Cristina pursues impulsive relations and a bohemian lifestyle. One night in town a charming, exotic and handsome painter named Juan Antionio (Javier Bardem) approaches the girls at dinner and invites them to the town of Oviedo.
Cristina intends to sleep with Juan but instead winds up with an aggravated ulcer, still he manages to charm the pants off of Vicky for one evening of love making that causes aggravated tension and frustration for the rest of the film. Not just details but how details fit together Once they head back to Barcelona, Cristina and Juan become close and move in together.  Vicky, obviously smitten with Juan, makes plans to marry her seriously boring boyfriend. Juan’s beautiful and insane ex wife Maria Elena (Maria Elena), the artistic genius that once tried to stab him, tries to kill herself and moves in with Cristina and Juan.
Cristina first reacts as any woman should Reviewer establishes her baseline, reveals her values – furiously. However, she quickly realizes that Maria Elena can provide inspiration for photography, her new passion. Maria Elena builds her a dark room, they make out a little bit and bam!, the threesome love affair is born. Cristina becomes the figure that keeps Juan and Maria Elena from breaking each other’s necks. They all love being intimate, artistic and romantic with each other and the girls somehow have no problem sharing one man. (Must be quite the man.) Nice little throwaway, a wink at the readers that suggests something about the writer.  Drama, broken hearts, promise of a life of discontent and romance ensue and all stories wrap up just in time for the girls to head back to the States at the end of summer. Has she given away too much of the plot? Maybe. But you could also say she does a good job of describing how the plot forms a knot without describing how it unravels, so she hasn’t given away everything.
The contrived Here’s the payoff for her earlier plot description. Did her summary make the story sound contrived? story was only worsened by heavy-handed voiceover. It felt like a storybook, a photo-essay at best. More on her basic reservation. She wants it to be plausible. And she implies an important aspect of the film: It is a kind of travelogue. Allen indulged every whim, Short word demolishes him. It’s a word with negative connotation. beautiful young starlets locked at the mouth, Dirty old man? Allen's personal history makes this an easy shot violent artistic genius, not sure about violent? and beautiful scenery. It wasn’t fantastic enough to be imaginative, but wasn’t controlled enough to be believable. Preceding sentence makes me stop and think, and I’m not certain I get her meaning. But it *sounds* smart. Allen transports his tired discourse about the perils of romance, the boredom of stability and the aggravation of love Preceding is a pretty good judgment of some of Allen’s fundamental concerns as expressed in his many films. If I  haven't talked about the rule of three, remind me. to a new location, but not even Barcelona and beautiful women can breathe fresh life into them. What is the point of watching a movie about Woody Allen’s neurosis if he’s not even in it? Yeah. He was an entertaining comic actor until he started to get old.
The triangle is an old shape for Allen. Instead of developing one love story well, he incorporates as many as possible, leaving all of them un-relatable. Interesting. I see how she can argue that. The romance felt completely detached, uninspired and boring. The quirks, charms and humor of the past replaced with a mundane shell of broken relationships devoid of any passion besides sex and anger. Of course, sex and anger are pretty good passions when it comes to driving plot. But again she implies that Allen’s movies should seen in the context of what he’s done before. I’m getting a sense she’s writing to an audience that cares about movies and has seen a lot of them rather than people who have never seen a Woody Allen movie. She may be implying we should bring a higher standard to the work of an established artists. The characters, mainly artists by trade, lack the personality and intelligence of the intellectuals Allen chronicled in past films. Fascinating idea. Allen knows intellectuals but not artists. Allen’s new muse, Johansson, is a pitiful inspiration compared to Diane Keaton. If you don’t know his movies, this doesn’t mean much other than to suggest the reviewer isn’t impressed by Johansson.

This is clear structure. Now we turn to the things she liked. Despite disappointing characters, overbearing voiceover and clichéd storylines, the film looked beautiful and had a lovely soundtrack of Spanish guitar. The camera captured the historic allure and seductiveness of Spain’s cities and countryside. Each shot was filled with vibrant and rich colors, perfectly suiting the rich texture of the instrumental soundtrack.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” proves that even the best writers and directors can become predictable and trite. A statement of general principle it would be hard to disagree with. Hopefully Allen finds a new muse who can give him a lesson in innovation. It’s time for the second coming of Allen’s heyday. As editor, I’d ask her to rewrite her last sentence. I don’t think heydays come twice, though accomplishments similar to those of his heyday might.

In general: She makes emphatic judgments, and she provides enough substance defending them that I can live with those that are asserted but not defended. That’s how it can work. If you have enough supporting detail, the reader goes along with your glittering generalizations. This review is aimed at people who know Woody Allen’s career and his many movies. As an editor, I’d ask her to put in a couple grafs directed at someone who has never seen a Woody Allen movie. How would such a person react? Is this a bad movie or a bad Woody Allen movie, if you know what I mean? Now, what did I think of the movie? I liked it because it was so darn pretty, both landscape and actors, and – from my POV – a slight meditation on how Americans don’t quite get the sophistications of Europe – a theme that goes back hundreds of years -- that love bruises and amuses but you get over it (no harm done) and maybe learn from it, just one more step toward rueful maturity. However, because our anonymous reviewer is a young female, I honor her POV. She is a character in this movie in a sense, and you could argue she has more invested than I would in whether or not the audience thinks this movie is representative of her age and gender. She has shown me another way to look at the movie, and I appreciate the perspective. Bottom line is that I am entertained by the way her mind works, by its fierce engagement with the movie.

And just for fun let's link to Roger Ebert's review of the same movie. You will note some similarities to the student review: Both reference Allen's career and both include a good deal of plot, though Ebert includes less. You will also note differences: Ebert has taken notes and has some specific bits of  dialogue as well as  more comments about specific bits of filmmaking history and technique. But the big difference is that -  even though, as David Thomson suggested,  Ebert is as true to his feelings about the film as is the student reviewer - they are very different feelings. He is at a greater distance from the emotional turmoil in the movie - with age and pain come greater distance from the emotional turmoil of youth and a muted nostalgic fondness for it. (Indeed, what are movies other than borrowed  memories?) Also, there's no sense he is using the movie as a way of conjuring up the complexities (some would say the nasties) of Allen's personal life. Does that make his review better than the student review? No. Just different. Personal.

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