Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Incongruous Double Feature: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Clone Wars

Posted By on Tue, Aug 19, 2008 at 9:00 AM

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It's August, it was the weekend, he was actually in the city for some reason, so Jesse Hassenger up and saw whatever was playing.

I originally had the idea for spotlighting my occasional forays into misguided self-programmed double features a few weeks ago, after stumbling out of American Teen, into The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and, shortly thereafter, tedium. In fact, the tedium of the third Mummy movie extended so far, ancient-curse-like, that I couldn't think much about it without getting drowsy; the piece went unwritten. But this weekend I was back in the mismatching action

As soon as you pair two dissimilar movies, it becomes easier to their commonalities, however vague. In the case of these two, it's the constant brand flux of Woody Allen and George Lucas, respectively. Allen had a bit of a comeback three years ago with Match Point, hyperbolically described as his best movie in ten or even twenty years. It is a measure of the hype-backlash acceleration that now, among the mostly-positive reviews for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (which debuted at Cannes, if I recall, to middling notices), you can find critics making the same ridiculous claim: that this is Allen's finest work in a decade or more, now consigning Match Point to the "nice try" category. Lucas and his Star Wars series have suffered similar critical revisionism; all three prequels were box-office hits with fairly-to-solidly positive Rotten Tomatoes ratings, only to have their reception rewritten in hindsight as the disappointments of the decade. Both Allen and Lucas are subjected to the assumption that the most negative impression of a movie is always the most honest. This double feature, then, turns out to be pretty compatible on a personal level, as it fuses my Woody Allen apologism with my Star Wars prequel apologism -- and puts both to the test.

(My original incongruous-double-feature pairing would've been more genuinely incongruous and more of a challenge to connect, as my moviegoing partner and I originally intended to sneak into Mirrors following the Woody picture; I underestimated the appeal of a chintzy-looking horror movie, in August, in Times Square, so we opted out of taking away seats at a sold-out show and went across the street to catch Clone Wars. Another day, crappy August horror movie.)


The Times Square crowd for Vicky Cristina Barcelona seemed unusually diverse in both age and racial background for a Woody Allen movie, though that could be just in comparison to the matinee of Cassandra's Dream that I shared with a whole lot of senior citizens back in January. But from my admittedly limited vantage point, it looks as if the continuing attempts to sell Woody Allen movies without much Woody Allen has finally met with some success. Many people were surely there aware of Woody's presence -- there were too many knowing chuckles for a movie that isn't really all that funny -- but the youthfulness seemed like a reaction to the sunny Barcelona location and sunnier cast of beautiful people: Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall (as Cristina and Vicky, respectively, Americans spending the summer in Spain) plus Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (as the Spanish artists they encounter).

The overall pleasantness and attractiveness seemed to give the crowd a buzz of mild gratitude for not being too stupid (like most studio romantic comedies) or fusty (like some other Woody Allen pictures). And if Vicky Cristina Barcelona had followed Allen's string of inconsequential and sometimes tone-deaf early-aughts comedies (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else), it would indeed come as a blessed relief: a more relaxed, more contemplative, less slapdash effort.

The mixture of light comedy and lighter drama is not unlike his Melinda and Melinda from a few years ago, only without the philosophical genre-sorting: instead, the movie cruises along with a little relationship drama and mild chuckles until Penelope Cruz periodically busts in and ups everyone's game. Cruz plays the ex-wife of Javier Bardem's smoothie, and as the pair enter into a three-way relationship with Johannson, Allen finds a tempestuous rhythm in Cruz's stormy, funny, affecting performance.

If these bits of the movie are fresh, it also has a lot of the usual Woody Allen quirks (or shortcomings), like the way the characters analyze themselves and each other out loud, as if they're watching each other in a movie rather than having a genuine conversation with each other. Moreover, in retrospect it's hard to nail down much of what happens in the movie apart from the Cruz scenes; like some of those recent comedies, it feels like half or three-quarters of a movie stretched to feature length, with a mostly-pointless voiceover narration talking through the gaps.

One of his recent films that didn't share this stretched-thin texture was Scoop, a silly but very funny little comedy that was roundly dismissed a few years ago after following the more serious Match Point. Of course, Vicky Cristina Barcelona will be dismissed, too, either next time he makes a better movie that can be exaggerated into his best in ten, fifteen, twenty, hell why not thirty or forty years, or next time he makes a worse one that needs to be considered part of a five, ten, fifty year slump. What's strangest is that Allen has made a film that accommodates both of those generalizations: not that good, not that bad, a movie that only takes a little bit of interpretation to placed virtually anywhere below the masterpiece line in his body of work. Maybe he's sensed this, too; his next movie is called Whatever Works.

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Clone Wars, meanwhile, is the Star Wars equivalent of Hollywood Ending or Anything Else: mildly enjoyable for the mere fact that it takes place in its creator's world, but depressing in the way it only brings scraps of even the smallest innovation to that world. I say this as someone who thoroughly enjoyed Episodes I-III and would take even the thunkiest, clunkiest George Lucas dialogue over the solemn quasi-gravity of the mostly-humorless Lord of the Rings movies.

Clone Wars, though, finds something far worse than clunky George Lucas dialogue: Saturday morning cartoon dialogue that costs twelve bucks to hear. I don't take much issue with Lucas releasing a low-budget cartoon squrequel (or whatever you call a movie that sequelizes one movie while prequelizing another); Star Wars has never been shy about its multimedia tie-ins. But rather than using this inessential profit stream to have some fun with the unexplored corners of the Star Wars universe, the movie mostly gives us blocky imitations of known characters (Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda, etc.) running through intergalactic skirmishes far less spectacular than those last forty-five minutes of Attack of the Clones (which I'll watch just about any time).

The best parts of Clone Wars are the tiny liberties and creativities it takes with the universe, introducing weird little creatures like Jabba the Hutt's repulsively cute (or maybe cutely repulsive) infant son, and a separatist general who commands a vast robot army with a Connery-esque Scottish brogue. I also can't help but giggle at the continuing malfunctions of the separatist's droid army, especially the droid who cries "whyyyyy!" as he's cast over a cliff. Silly, to be sure, but if you can't access your inner nine-year-old while watching Star Wars stuff, then I can't help you.

So as TV, this could be fun. But as a movie, even an August movie, it's not enough. Any number of minor improvements could've made this enjoyable drive-in fodder (for the parts of the country that still have drive-ins, anyway): nicer animation, more weirdo alien side characters, a feature-worthy score, someone saying "I have a bad feeling about this" at some point. But lacking that additional care, this is cable-level entertainment without the benefits of a short running time and the option to channel surf. A lot of nerds will compare it unfavorably to the earlier Clone Wars cartoons by Genndy Tartakovsky, but although Tartakovsky's hand-drawn animation is far more stylish, I never bought into the hype that his work exceeds any of the live-action features. Tartakovsky brings an anime-style hyperbole -- lots of scenes where Mace Windu, like, waves his hand while flying through the air and throws several thousand robots into the nearest sun or something -- that would be difficult to sustain for more than a few minutes. But the new Clone Wars movie doesn't find a solution except to make everything a bit more grounded in normal, deadening repetition.

Maybe Clone Wars will do the honorable service of making whiny nerds realize how well-crafted the prequels were on story and design levels. Then again, maybe it'll only convince the angriest of the Star Wars mob (you know, the "fans" who only actually think two of the six movies are good) that they were even more right than they thought. I personally don't begrudge the George Lucas industry that has sprung up in place of a filmography. By all accounts, the guy doesn't particularly enjoy the process of writing or directing; the best filmmaking in the series tends to be based on beautiful designs, painterly frame compositions, and kinetic editing. But Star Wars: Clone Wars is like an action figure that falls apart after a few days of play; you weren't expecting art, but the product should've been a little more fun.

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