Monday, August 25, 2008
This past weekend, for the first time in over ten years, I did not go to the annual Sunset Junction Street Fair. The Junction is held down in Silverlake every year in late August and for a long time it was something I looked forward to every year. A fair with food, drink, booths to shop in, friends you’d run into, music and massive swarms of people. Up until a few weeks ago, Isaac Hayes was scheduled to perform on Saturday night. But in the past few years the admission price has gone from a reasonable suggested donation to a mandatory entrance fee culminating in what this year was raised to twenty dollars. This, combined with reports of local merchants upset over how the Festival is being organized, caused me to want to make other plans. Besides, twenty dollars for the privilege of walking down a street I always get to walk down anyway with no offering of free booze, no promise of a Lisa Edelstein sighting like in years past? I don’t think so. Several articles in the Los Angeles Times in recent days have detailed the unhappiness local store owners have expressed over elements of the Festival, like where the footprints would be. In response to this, the Times quoted the organizer as saying those people were unhappy because they never got “strawberry ice cream as kids.” Nice. Clearly, the Festival is being run by somebody eager to work with everyone in the neighborhood. Now I’m willing to pay a fair price, but this is just a step too far. I’m sure enough people showed up that my cash wasn’t missed, but I also know that I’m not the only one who felt this way. And now there are further allegations being made about the Festival, causing me to not regret plunking my cash down. So those are the sort of people we’re dealing with. It’s a shame because for a long time the Festival was a lot of fun. I especially liked the last-blast-of-August vibe and there always seems to be a certain point on the Sunday of the Festival every year where you can almost believe that the summer is just going to go on forever. But this time I found other things to do. On Saturday I went to see TROPIC THUNDER at the Vista (big and loud, some laughs but not enough of them) then soon went down the street from there to the Tiki Ti where I spent the next several hours and was eventually joined by a few friends who also chose to instead spend their hard-earned money on delicious cocktails. We had a great time and the ones who run the Sunset Junction weren’t going to stop that from happening.
Another excellent substitute for that end-of-summer vibe turned out to be VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. Without going into too many details, it’s a terrific piece of work, probably Woody Allen’s best film in a number of years. This is a very pleasant surprise, considering the number of recent films of his where I’ve felt like I was bending over backwards a little to defend it or, in the case of something like CASSANDRA’S DREAM, felt disappointed by the whole thing. There’s none of that feeling in VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, which not only feels more vibrant and alive than anything he’s made in a while, it shows that he still has something to say creatively, without merely going over beats and themes that he has covered numerous times in the past. Considering I’d sometimes wondered if he still had something this good in him, the result is a little thrilling.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young women who travel to Barcelona for the summer. Vicky is engaged to be married and Christina, a would-be artist “at liberty” as she puts it, is single. Soon after they arrive they meet an artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who abruptly invites the two of them to Oviedo for the weekend where the three of them can sightsee, eat good food and, of course, make love. Christina is intrigued, Vicky is appalled. Where the three of them go from here turns out to be somewhat unexpected, a situation compounded by when his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), with whom he had a somewhat volatile relationship, re-enters the picture.
I can’t imagine that this is how Woody Allen looked at it, but the film plays to me like a modern version of the sort of film I would imagine was made in Europe in the 70s. Funny, interesting, sexy, beautiful settings, weighty but not too serious. The issues of monogamy, desire and attraction are nothing new for Woody’s films, but it genuinely feels like he was reinvigorated by the change in locale. Or maybe it just put him in a good mood and that seeped into the film. After all, it’s hard not to be attracted by this setting. However it happened, for me VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA seemed to glide along seemingly without effort and it quickly became a true pleasure to sit through. All of the actors are good here, with Bardem and Cruz bringing a particular electricity to their roles, even if they aren’t really the leads. It's particularly hard to avoid staring at the screen, not blinking, every second Cruz in onscreen. The unknown Hall, playing pretty much the Diane Keaton part (she never actually says “I’m from Philadelphia, we believe in God,” but you can hear that in her voice) is a terrific find as well. And Johansson manages to pull off being interested in the romance of the artist’s lifestyle, but you can easily see how inexperienced the character is in such matters as well.
One viewing doesn’t make me feel like I can write extensively on it, but I have a feeling that VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA might become one of those movies I return to repeatedly not just because of the additional layers I expect to find, but because I think it will be such a pleasure to live in this movie again. It’s funny and intoxicating, just like its setting appears to be, but it’s also weighty enough to be aware of the doubt that lies when those late-night dinners in Spain eventually end. Because, like summer, they always do. The film is like a really good white wine served with one of those wonderful meals and the buzz it provides is the sort of thing you gladly remember when the seasons finally do change. And there’s always the hope that we’ll get another one this good from Woody in the future.