Woody Allen finds new inspiration in Spain

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (Rated PG-13), seemingly breezy, at times almost rushed, as Woody Allen, who wrote and directed, explores the vagaries of love and cynicism in the romantic cities of Barcelona and Oviedo, Spain.

Using voice-over (not Allen's), Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are introduced not only to the audience but to Barcelona where they will stay for the summer. Vicky will work on her graduate degree in Catalan culture and Cristina will walk the streets, camera in hand, testing her eye and her talent.

As characters, they offer an interesting contrast. Vicky is practical, on the cusp of marriage, almost schoolmarmish, and in no mood for anything resembling a Latin flirtation. Her life is ordered, her future planned.

Cristina possesses the glow of casual youth, ripe and lovely, open to any experience or attractive man that comes along. And who appears at their restaurant table late one evening, after an art gallery opening, but local painter and romantic, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He invites the women to join him in visiting Oviedo, where he wishes to see a work of art. He also suggests, without foreplay, that their weekend together could be a menage a trois.

Cristina is intrigued. Vicky is offended. And so begins a weekend in Oviedo that launches a series of encounters that will introduce them to a lovely town and eventually take them back to Barcelona with Antonio.

Of course, Juan was once married to the volatile and beautiful Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Their relationship continues to be love-hate, passionate and deadly.

While "Vicky Cristina" affects almost a lighthearted, comedic style, there is the ever-present melancholy so often found in Woody Allen films. The line, "Only unfulfilled love can be romantic" is oft repeated, and, in essence, this film is an interesting exploration of the seductive pull of romance that ultimately proves to be illusory. Intimacy, day-to-day life shrivels the heart and robs life of the intensity found when coupling with a relative stranger.

This Allen truth is confronted by both Vicky and Cristina as Allen deconstructs their assumptions — Vicky believing she will find happiness when she embraces the template of her married peers; Cristina's belief that with each new relationship she has/will/ could found the one — and leaves the audience with little more than the idea that there is no path to genuine fulfillment. Life will never be more than it is, and though romance will blossom, it is ever brief and never resilient.

What "Vicky Cristina" does not have is Allen's presence on screen. In "Match Point" he followed Johansson around offering up the now familiar Woody shtick of one- liners while nurturing his neurosis. In "Vicky Cristina" there is no room for him, other than to sit at an outdoor cafe, sipping strong coffee, while commenting on all that the filmgoers are privy to. It might have been interesting, for it is clear that the sentiments of the voice-over are those of Allen, absent the self-deprecatory comedic sting.

Over the last three decades, Allen has been a prodigious filmmaker. His body of work is substantial. While some filmgoers remain nostalgic for "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," others feel that since Allen left Manhattan he has found new energy and inspiration — first in England and now in Spain. "Vicky Cristina" does not have the punch of some of his earlier films. But still, Allen's perusal of the human condition, in whatever form, is always worth an afternoon or evening.

Bangkok Dangerous

"Bangkok Dangerous" (Rated R). If there's anything dangerous about this movie it's the threat it poses to Nicolas Cage's career. Once a fine actor, an Oscar winner for "Leaving Las Vegas," he has, of late, fallen into insipid movie roles that have the shelf life of perhaps two weekends, three at most and then gone.

In this dark, grim film he is an assassin, Joe London, hired to come to Bangkok — which he describes as dirty, corrupt, and dense — to kill four men. He makes it clear, in the opening setup, that he lives alone, never gets close to anyone, is paid well for each hit, and then drops quickly off the radar.

What the film's directors (Oxide and Danny Pang) do — this movie is a remake of their 1999 Hong Kong well received film of the same title — is attempt to convince the audience that London is having an existential crisis. Suddenly, in Bangkok of all places, he awakens to the idea that perhaps his life is void of meaning and empty of anyone who cares about him. Imagine. But even in turmoil he manages to assassinate three very bad guys with no hesitation.

Perhaps Cage is attempting to mimic the post-20th century action hero (or anti-hero) whose face is a mask of stone, who says as little as possible to anyone, and if he begins to doubt who he is and the value of his work, well, he commits suicide.

August must be the month when Hollywood takes out the trash. "Bangkok Dangerous" is one more sack of refuse left on the curb for the audience to peruse, following last month's wretched "Tropic Thunder," "Babylon A.D.," and "Step Brothers." Take heart. Some good films are on the way. Fall is when Oscar beckons and Hollywood sends forth its contenders.

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