★★★ / ★★★★
As the Cold War nears its end, Fred (Chris Eigeman), a navy officer, comes to stay with his cousin, Ted (Taylor Nichols), in Barcelona until his fleet arrives. Though their relationship is somewhat strained since childhood, they are the only cousins that each other have so they try to accept each other’s differences. As time passes, however, the every day challenge of being around one another proves to require more energy to endure. It does not help that Fred wears his Navy uniform wherever he goes which inspires strangers to call him “fascist” and other remarks of disgust.
“Barcelona,” written and directed by Whit Stillman, makes shallow characters worth getting to know. It is critical that they believe they stand for something, from being proud Americans living in foreign country to being romantics who yearn to find the right women. Though their lifestyle seems independent of real struggle, accompanied by a lot of complaining, they are interesting subjects because the more we try to understand them, we realize that perhaps we share some of their traits. Fred and Ted want happiness—whatever that means—which appears to vary from day to day.
Ted is the calmer half—at least on the outside. Nichols does a solid job capturing his character’s insecurities, especially when it comes to dating women that he thinks he deserves. He confides to his cousin that he thinks he might have a “romantic illusion problem.” So, in order to correct his condition, he plans to date women who look plain, maybe even homely. This way, he will have a higher chance of finding the so-called right woman because he will love her for who she is as a person rather than her looks.
In turn, we can ask two questions: 1) Can he truly force himself to view women differently just because he has come to a conclusion with regards to what might be wrong with him? 2) Even if he happens to find the “right” woman, will forcing himself to change get in the way of achieving true happiness? Though Ted dresses in a professional way, holds a nice job, and talks like a very educated adult, in a lot of ways he remains a child.
Fred, on the other hand, is an open book. Whatever thought comes across his mind, he has an urgent need to express it. He is the comedic core of the picture and Eigeman excels in allowing his character to communicate thoughts that may sound stupid without the character coming off vacuous. His monologue about shaving and telling false stories about Ted being into S&M match hilarious one-liners like why he looks so good when in front of a mirror but terrible in photos. At some point, I started to think that if I knew someone like him in person, I would want to be his friend because he is entertaining. But he is arrogant, too. His personality is not everyone’s cup of tea.
The material works because the writer-director is willing to dissect between who the characters are and what they stand for. Can they be separated? One of the subplots involves the increasing political tension between the Americans and the Spanish to the point where safety is an issue. I wished that the tension was in the forefront more often so that the more serious turn in the second half could have had a bit more punch. The middle section drags somewhat in that it repeats the revolving doors of women in the men’s lives.
“Barcelona” searches for meaning through characters who are lost. I admire movies that feature characters that I cannot read or figure out twenty minutes into it. Fred and Ted appear to change in small degrees, but a surprising scene comes around once in a while and you wonder if they have changed or learned anything at all.
Food of Love (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novella “The Page Turner” by David Leavitt, writer and director Ventura Pons helmed this movie about an eighteen-year-old student (Kevin Bishop) in Juliard who one day works for a much older pianist (Paul Rhys) and their eventual relationship in Barcelona. What started off as a young man looking for his identity eventually became more about how his mother (Juliet Stevenson) coped when she found out that her son was into men. I’m not exactly sure which half I liked better because both had equal number of strengths and weaknesses. I liked that this film was constantly changing and constantly exploring the dynamics between the characters. But then once in a while, it slides into amateur acting and melodramatic scenes. Toward the second half of the picture, Bishop became increasingly angry with his mother, the reasons of which were vague to me. Yes, she was around him all the time but I thought she wasn’t suffocating. I could tell that she cared about him and only wanted what was best for him. So when his outbursts came, I didn’t believe it because he had no reason to take out his frustrations with her. In fact, there were times when I was more interested in the mother than the son, which was not a good thing because the film’s focus should have been Bishop’s character, the things that were important to him and the things that he was searching for. There was a certain sadness and desperation about Stevenson’s character when she finally decided to attend a meeting consisting of mothers with gay children. As for the mentor aspect of the story, I thought that Bishop and Rhys’ relationship was creepy. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think that the whole thing was romantic. I just don’t find anything appealing when it comes to an eighteen-year-old being with a thirty- or fortysomething. The supposed musical connection they had wasn’t really explored. Instead, there were far too many scenes in the bedroom. Though none of it was graphic, such scenes could have been taken out and the director should’ve built upon the foundations of the arc that the lead character was supposed to go through. Ultimately, I thought this movie had potential but it was far too unfocused and it easily surrendered to the usual pitfalls of homosexual romance.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.