Say what you will about his personal foibles or his artistic decline over the past couple of decades, Woody Allen continues to make movies exactly how he wants to make them. General audiences gave up on him a long time ago, and critics keep falling in and out of love, but there he is, steadily plugging away, turning out at least one new movie every year. Some of them are better than others, of course. Even his most ardent fans will no doubt agree that Allen hit his artistic peak in the late '80s and hasn't risen to that same level since 'Crimes and Misdemeanors'. He's had a few good movies in recent years, but arguably no great ones. Sadly, most of his output has been pretty forgettable, if not outright awful. I'm sure even Woody wishes he'd never made 'Anything Else'.
Even so, despite personal scandal and public disinterest, once every few years he'll hit on a good idea that brings attention and critical adulation back around his way for a brief while. Allen's last resurgence was in 2005 with 'Match Point', which finally lured the director away from New York and gave him a new muse in Scarlett Johansson. The respect that film earned seemed to flitter away pretty quickly with their next collaboration, 'Scoop'. Nonetheless, Johansson is back for the latest leg of Allen's European tour with 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'.
The film follows two friends spending the summer in Spain. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is the requisite Woody Allen stand-in, this time out a neurotic grad student enraptured with the Spanish culture. Cristina (Johansson) is the other side of that coin, free-spirited and impulsive. Frankly, she's kind of a big slut. One night at a restaurant, the girls are approached by Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a Bohemian painter with a reputation for his fiery temper. Juan Antonio wastes no time making his intentions known. Within 30 seconds of meeting, he invites them both to leave town with him for a weekend of love-making. Individually or together, it's their choice. Preferably together. Vicky is insulted. Cristina is ready to rip her clothes off on the spot.
Complications ensue. The girls take the trip. Cristina gets sick. Vicky spends time with Juan Antonio and lowers her defenses. Cristina recovers and becomes Juan Antonio's new girlfriend. Vicky hides her feelings and pines for the artist. This love triangle turns even messier when Juan Antonio's hot-tempered ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), with whom he is clearly still in love, shows up to reclaim her position in his life.
Woody Allen has been basically making the same couple of movies over and over again for the last thirty years. 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' is firmly embedded in his standard romantic comedy formula: Beautiful but neurotic young women fall in love with and throw themselves all over an older man who happens to be a brilliant artist (usually Allen himself). Thankfully, the director has taken a step back from acting this time to let Bardem play the object of their desire. However, the very annoying documentary-like narration (a staple of many of Allen's films) feels extremely forced and gimmicky here.
The lovely Spanish locations make a refreshing change of scenery. The city of Barcelona is as big a character and very much deserves its title billing along with Vicky and Christina. Also intriguing is the complicated dynamic that develops between Cristina, Juan Antonio, and Maria Elena. Left to their own devices, the former spouses do nothing but argue and threaten each other's lives. Cristina becomes a calming agent. Their relationship can only work with her in the mix.
Yes, there's a threeseome. The film received a little notoriety due to clips of Johansson and Cruz in a Sapphic smooching session. In truth, that scene lasts about five seconds on screen and is precisely as erotic as any other Woody Allen movie, which is to say not at all. It exists only to remind us what a sexist pig the director is.
Still, 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' is one of Allen's better movies of recent years. I don't necessarily agree with the Oscar nomination for Penélope Cruz (I've never been a fan of the actress, and still don't see what the fuss is about), but the picture has some sharp dialogue, interesting character relationships, and strong performances. It's no 'Manhattan' or 'Annie Hall', but fortunately it's a notable improvement from the likes of 'Celebrity' or 'Hollywood Ending'.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' comes to Blu-ray from The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. The disc is a pretty no-frills affair with bland package art, understated menus, and no bonus features at all. If he actually pays attention to such things, I'm sure the disc is exactly what Woody Allen wants it to be.
For such a low-key movie, the Blu-ray sure looks terrific. No doubt the lovely Barcelona locations and travelogue-style photography by Javier Aguirresarobe (cinematographer of many major Spanish productions such as 'The Others' and 'The Sea Inside') play a large part in that. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is presented in Woody Allen's preferred theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture is silky smooth, with sharp details, vibrant colors, and no noticeable edge enhancement or digital compression artifacts. The disc offers some great High Definition imagery.
If I found anything disconcerting, the video has almost no apparent film grain at all, which is unusual for a production shot in 35mm. However, the disc doesn't have the typical side effects of excessive Digital Noise Reduction. Fine details and facial textures look vivid and realistic, not waxy or filtered. I believe the most likely explanation is that Allen and Aguirresarobe must have shot the movie on very fine-grained film stock, and this glossy picture-postcard appearance is exactly what they wanted it to be. It certainly suits the material well.
Technically, my receiver tells me that the signal it received from my Blu-ray player for this disc was encoded in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format. However, only the front three channels have any activity in them, making this actually a 3.0 configuration. In typical Woody Allen fashion, the mix is essentially mono. The movie is almost all dialogue. Only the music (really just a single song that's repeated several times) extends faintly to the front left and right speakers. Even that remains focused primarily in the center channel. Allen is simply not a believer in showy sound design. For what it is, the disc sounds fine. Dialogue is always crisp and precise, and the music comes across well.
Despite the packaging's Dolby Digital logo and claims of an "English Dolby Stereo" soundtrack, there are no Dolby audio options on the disc, just PCM.
Woody Allen is not a fan of behind-the-scenes or making-of material for his movies. He has always preferred to let his films speak for themselves. As such, the Blu-ray has nothing at all, not even a trailer.
I wouldn't quite call it the career rejuvenation that some fans and critics labeled it, but 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' is better-than-average for a late-period Woody Allen movie. The Blu-ray has very nice picture quality, OK sound, and exactly as many bonus features as the director wants it to have (i.e. none). The disc is worth a look.