A different kind of film from the Woody Allen oeuvre, Vicki Christina Barcelona is lightweight, lighthearted, and liberal, but also surprisingly thoughtful, romantic, and subtly erotic. An actor´s showcase more than anything else, we get a quartet of fine performances here that range from good-to-excellent while romantic tension between all four buoys the story along. Film also has one fatal flaw, though: unnecessary and overbearing narration that threatens to sink everything.
Vicki (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young post-college Americans who travel to Spain for the summer and stay with Vicki´s aunt Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and uncle Mark (Kevin Dunn) in Barcelona. While at an art gallery, Christina becomes smitten with painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem); later that night, he approaches both of them with an offer to fly with him to his hometown of Oviedo, where they can “sightsee, drink wine, and make love.” Christina accepts, and Vicki tags along to protect her. Soon both of them end up in romantic interludes with the painter. But a wild card enters the mix, Juan Antonio´s ex-wife Maria Elena, who threatens to disrupt the tryst(s). Things, however, aren´t always as they seem, as the girls begin to learn more than they might care to about themselves.
Bardem is excellent, particularly when paired with Cruz, who´s similarly good despite having much less screen time. But when they´re together the sexual tension is palpable: feisty and rapturous, they light up the film, which becomes something else entirely, and something I wanted to see more of. Not to take away from the girl´s story, which is well-played; Vicki and Christina are not your usual American tourists overseas, but thoughtful, intelligent young women who have a lot to say – and a lot to learn. Johansson is solid but outshone by Hall, who is something of a revelation as Vicki, torn between her feelings for Juan Antonio and her fiancée back in the US (Johansson and Hall previously co-starred in Christopher Nolan´s The Prestige).
Though director Allen´s influences aren´t always apparent, they´re fully present in two memorable scenes: a tracking shot following Christina as she retrieves some aspirin for Juan Antonio and returns to find Maria Elena assisting him, and a key scene between Vicki and Juan Antonio shot far above an out-of-focus Barcelona, where we pan back and forth between them and develop a sense of vertigo. Masterful stuff. Otherwise, though, location work in Barcelona hasn´t been used to its full potential. Music is almost nonexistent (save for a touching guitar solo) though the unrelenting narration would drown it out anyway.
About that narration: it´s this American-accented, nasally-intoned near-parody from Christopher Evan Welch that I wanted to shut up not two minutes into the film (it´s like that episode of Seinfeld where George buys the book-on-tape and then recoils in horror after hearing it: “I can´t listen to this. It sounds like me!”). It never stops – I don´t think there´s five minutes of film without it – though I managed to block it out of my mind after awhile. And it´s always just stating the obvious, telling instead of showing, making the film feel far more shallow and straightforward than anything on the screen would actually imply. Sample narration: “Juan Antonio leaves in the dead of night. Christina tries to sleep.” This is spoken over two shots of Juan Antonio getting in his car in the dead of night, and Christina tossing in bed. C´mon Woody: cut us some slack.
A solid if unexceptional martial arts fest, Rob Minkoff´s The Forbidden Kingdom is notable for one reason: it´s the long-awaited team-up of Hong Kong superstars Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Story – a standard Kid in King Arthur´s Court-like fish-out-of-water tale mixed with the traditional evil warlord plot one expects from these films – is nothing special, but the stars are onscreen together and make the best of it: an extended fight scene between the two of them that incorporates a number of different martial arts styles is the film´s definitive highlight.
Put-upon Boston adolescent Jason (Michael Angarano), a rabid kung fu fan who spends his time browsing the DVDs at a Chinatown pawn shop run by Old Hop (Chan), is forced by some neighborhood bullies to use his connection to the old man to help them rob the place. Hop is shot during a wildly unconvincing robbery scene, and hands Jason a mystical staff, instructing him to return it to its rightful owner. During an escape attempt, Jason is conveniently transported to Ancient China, where he soon learns of the staff´s owner: The Monkey King (Li), who needs it to break free from a stone-encasement and defeat an evil warlord who has been enslaving the countryside. Returning it won´t be so easy, though, as the warlord´s minions spot Jason and the staff almost as soon as he arrives. But drunken master Lu Yan (Chan again), vengeful orphaned girl Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) and Silent Monk (Li again) unite to train him in martial arts and aid him in his quest.
Plot is just an excuse for one fight scene after another in a showcase for the two stars, and they don´t disappoint. Best of the best: the aforementioned Li-Chan duel, which has the two of them battling it out for nearly ten minutes, and a terrific brawl in a teahouse that recalls some of Chan´s best work, in which he uses the helpless Jason as a projectile weapon against attacking minions.
Chan has the choice role of drunken Lu Yan, a return to famed Druken Master Wong Fei-hung, one of the roles that made him famous (interestingly enough: Li has actually played Fei-hung more often than Chan). Li has less to do (and a real lack of dialogue, which isn´t a bad thing) but still commands attention with his screen presence. The dual roles allow them to stretch their acting muscle, too: Chan, though nearly unintelligible, is clearly having a lot of fun as Old Hop, and Li is, well, let´s say ‘amusing´ as the Monkey King. Angarano, who looks like a young Sam Rockwell, is unconvincing throughout as the kung fu apprentice (he´s no Ralph Macchio), though he stops short of being a true detriment to the film.
One might expect the potentially legendary teaming of Li and Chan to be helmed by a similarly experienced Hong Kong presence, or at the very least, a veteran action director of some distinction. But here´s Rob Minkoff, the man behind The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little 2. Before you cry foul, however, he actually handles things quite well here, though there´s a bit too much editing and CGI during the fight scenes for my tastes. Still, he lets choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping do his thing often enough and ultimately succeeds; at the very least, the action here is an improvement over, say, the Rush Hour series.
Lovely cinematography by Peter Pau makes the best of some breathtaking Chinese locales.
Also opening: the Czech-Slovak-Italian co-production Malé oslavy, which is screening in Czech (unsubtitled) throughout the city.