Movies Into Film Critical Observations by N.P.Thompson
N.P.Thompson proffers his critical takes on an overwhelming number of selected films. Unfortunately we are not going to show all of Thompson's reviews which is a shame, but a one page site is not going to handle that amount of written word.
Content is from the site's 2001-2008 archived pages providing just a brief glimpse as to what Thompson offered its readership.
We will miss your insights.
What They’re Saying about N.P. Thompson
“N.P. is one of those rare critics who recognizes his job is not to synopsize, but to...criticize. He parses today's language of film with the care of an Ivy League professor and the passion of a true film geek.” — Warren Etheredge, founder, The Warren Report
“NP Thompson's film reviews are absolutely scathing…not only for genuinely bad films, but even for films that have garnered almost universal praise. I am grateful, though, that a critic like NP Thompson exists. He's not necessarily just a contrarian, but he actually does reveal a certain side of critical opinion that rarely gets shown. Very few critics are brave enough to go against the popular opinion…and in some reviews, he's managed to tap into that moment we all have when we see a film that’s been given an inordinate amount of positive reviews, especially art films, and we go, "Wait a minute, this is shit." There are times when it does feel that he is exposing some films for what they really are: shallow and pretentious. In today's critical monotony, this guy is a true curmudgeon in the best sense of the word…”
— Carlo Pangalangan
“…as dead-on as it gets these days in film writing…a justifiable reaction against the applause given irony.”
— Mark Moskowitz, director, Stone Reader
“…I sent NP the Batman t shirt that he wore on the Tonight Show after finding him lusting after the trove we found on MoonAtMidnight.com. He's a real Batman fan and while I can't find a review of a Batman film, that has to be in the works. He is definitely the Batman of reviewers and has the fans (like me) to prove it. When a new film gets released the makers send up the signal to the clouds and hope he sees it to rescue them within a reasonable time frame. If he does that, they are indeed saved, because Batman approves!…” — Rev Sales
“…smart and meticulous…” — John Simon
“…a torch singer trapped in the body of a film critic.” — Julie Cascioppo
“…delightfully unpopular views…” — Neal Schindler, Seattle Weekly
“…a great critic who is always worth reading.” — Matt Zoller Seitz
“Although I often don't agree with your opinions, I find that they are some of the most incisive and well thought-out in all of film criticism, whether in print or online.” — Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly
“Sheer pleasure to read…a vacation from the vacuous crap that passes for criticism on the arts.” — Robert M. Goodman
“…even when I disagree with you, you teach me things I didn't know about my own opinions.” — Dan Harper, Senses of Cinema
“brilliant…skewering of the clubby go-along-to-get-along school of film criticism…spot-on.”
— Chris Kelsey, JazzTimes
“I just wanted to send props for your wonderful screed — it made me laugh, which is always a better bet than crying.”
— Amy Alexander, contributor, The Nation
“[Director Judy Irving and I] appreciated that you noticed things that she'd put in there deliberately, things that, so far, no one else has noticed. There is one ironic aspect to your review that I can't help but mention. In the reveal where the camera is pulling back from my dishes…if you look carefully you'll see poking out behind them a bottle of...hair conditioner.” — Mark Bittner, scruffy star and subject, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
“I don't know anyone simultaneously so articulate and so wrong-headed about so many things.
But that's why I like reading you.” — Tom Tangney, KIRO Radio
“I liked what you had to say about the movies of '05...
btw, [I] was recently in Seattle and read a copy of The Stranger (not the Camus version but the local version). Enough said.”
— Roger L. Simon, mystery novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter
“Your reviews revive the passion I felt for movies while poring over Kael and Sarris anthologies and Minneapolis alt-weeklies — this was back when we looked forward to Wednesdays, before the Village Voice bought out all those papers around 1998 or ‘99 and replaced them with generic disaffectedness.” — Iris Key
“amazingly insightful” — Matthew O'Brien, author,
Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas
“I knew it was only a matter of time before a story about two guys repeatedly coming out of boxes in their underwear would be described as homoerotic.” — Shane Carruth, director, Primer
“Thompson's description of the score — that [Jonny] Greenwood ‘writes music as if he learned everything he knows about composing by taking a brickbat to hornets' nests’ — is dead on.” — Sarah D. Bunting, Tomato Nation
“I recommend taking a look at critic N.P. Thompson's list of the best and worst of 2005. Some great reading…”
— Clive Davis, blogger, The Spectator
Notable: I may not be a name recognized pundit, but I want to add my two cents worth of appreciation of N.P. Thompson's reviews. I would read them religiously sometimes to the chagrin of my partner. I vividly remember one time when I was supposedly searching for a Baltimore mover when instead I was reading Thompson's review of the Dark Knight. With the tragedy of Ledger’s early death affecting the film along with Christian Bale in the leading role of the caped crusader/millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, I was eager to see what N.P. Thompson would write. Whoa, the review was scathing to say the least. You can read it below. Likewise, when my partner asked about the results for best Baltimore movers and learned I had totally forgotten about it and instead had spent my time reading movie reviews, his retort also was scathing. Chagrined I returned to my search and triumphantly found Hampden Moving & Storage. It turned out that this family owned and operated Moving Company, with employees that include fifth-generation family members, was perfect for our move to Washington DC. They worked with us to make our moving experience as worry-free as possible guiding us through the entire relocation process and have become my family household Baltimore movers. BTW: the move was successful. And I loved the Dark Knight. I thought the action sequences are like being injected with a shot of adrenalin straight into the heart. Of course this was not the first time I disagreed with N.P. Thompson's reviews which I will continue to read, forever and as long as he continues to write them.
This site isn’t concerned with “the industry,” nor will you stumble across any obsessive patter about “box office.” There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of independently managed cinema sites on the Internet and most of them fuss and fixate over numbers as if every movie journal should compete with Variety. The cumulative effect of all these numbing recitations of statistics makes for a soulless, empty experience; it’s increasingly rare (online or in print) to find what I think most people crave: a passionate, conversant approach to evaluating a movie. The laundry list reviews that coast on plot summaries, the cheap-shot raspberries that masquerade as wit—those are of no interest to me.
Uninspired reviewing prevails in major dailies, alt-weeklies, and on the airwaves. One of my favorite examples of how not to be a movie critic was perfectly demonstrated on an NPR-affiliate show (it matters not which one) when the host asked the guest reviewer his opinion of a particular movie. “I think it’s going to bomb,” was the addled reply. The host tried another and equally unsuccessful approach to jump-start their segment: “Well, how do you think it’s going to do with the public?” Again, verbatim, with zero elaboration: “I think it’s going to bomb.” Never mind that the host couldn’t frame a lead question worth a damn (I might mention here that I worked in radio for 14 years, mostly at NPR stations, and in fact am a recovering NPR-liberal), the critic has a responsibility to be lively and alert. And thought-provoking. Can you imagine any visual arts columnist worth his or her salt saying, “I think this abstract sculpture is going to bomb”? Well, same difference.
Interesting, insightful film criticism does continue to be written. I usually enjoy (this does not mean agree with) the work of Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal, David Denby in the New Yorker, Raphael Shargel from the New Leader, Jonathan Rosenbaum at Chicago Reader, and Dave Kehr, the saving grace of the New York Times’ film coverage. Why in God’s name he has had to play fourth banana to the Holden-Elvis-A.O. buffoon troika remains any intelligent person’s guess. (Replacing Elvis, the heavy-breathing Manohla Dargis wasted no time in wasting ours.) Look no further than Kehr’s debunking of The Mudge Boy to discover him in supreme form: "When Chicken's number finally comes up, Mr. Burke delivers a scene that is at once chillingly grotesque and appallingly sentimental, like a family reunion on a daytime talk show crossed with selected bits of Un Chien Andalou.'' It’s a slam I envy, and one that’s absolutely just. There’s also the less heralded yet equally valuable Godfrey Cheshire, who wrote the most perceptive appraisal of Altman’s The Company that I came across. The readers of Durham, North Carolina’s Independent Weekly are lucky to have so astute a critic as Cheshire in their midst.
No website that names itself for John Simon’s out-of-print 1971 book Movies into Film (Dial Press) can or should skirt by without a mention of Mr. Simon. His often scathing, laugh-out-loud film (and theatre and book and music) essays are enduring sources of pleasure for me. Although he and I have similar musical interests (we both admire Charles Koechlin and Toru Takemitsu), I don’t share his cinematic tastes. I would defend The Last Picture Show as a masterpiece any day over Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties. For Mr. Simon, precisely the reverse holds true. His writing, which can be quite poignant, nonetheless has influenced mine. So has the style of Mr. Simon’s former sparring partner, the late Pauline Kael. And while I’m citing critics, film or otherwise, whose approaches I’ve savored, it seems right to acknowledge Dwight Macdonald, Renata Adler, Arlene Croce, Gary Giddins, Janet Maslin, E.M. Forster, and H.L. Mencken.
The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Under normal circumstances, there is no power on Earth that could have induced me to sit through a Batman movie. Which isn’t to say I haven’t seen one before. In the summer of 1992, an estranged friend and I briefly reunited. She and I had been film-going companions in earlier times, and so it seemed natural that we should go to a movie that afternoon. But finding something I’d be willing to take in, given the paucity of choices a Columbia, South Carolina multiplex presented us with, was, as you’d well imagine, difficult. For reasons of compromise I no longer recall, Mary Kaye (that was her name) and I ended up at Cool World, which neither of us wanted to go into, and sure enough, after a few minutes of bad animation and worse acting from Brad Pitt, we were roaming the low-lit corridors of the multiplex, peeking in doors of other screening rooms, hoping not to get caught by an usher, as we searched for something, anything less terrible to occupy our time. I had been adamant that we would not see Batman Returns, but standing in the doorframe, I found the wintry visual palette appealing, and as the film had just begun, in we went to watch Michelle Pfeiffer transform herself into Catwoman and some actor (was it Danny DeVito or Christopher Walken?) play the Penguin. All in all, it proved itself a fairly… painless experience.
But, as I began to say, I would not, in my disdain for comic books (and for the adults who read them), have conceivably had any interest in The Dark Knight. Last fall, when I learned that Heath Ledger had been cast as the Joker, my first thought was—why? Why would an actor of his prodigious gifts go slumming? I found his choice of the role a downer; I hoped that he wasn’t just going to do flavorless commercial studio work for the bigger paychecks from there on out, that he would migrate back to real acting. And I thought no more about it, until January 22, 2008.
The tragedy of Ledger’s early death, what Todd Haynes has so aptly called an “inconceivable absence,” confers on The Dark Knight a stature that the movie doesn’t actually deserve. I’m sure there will be many viewers who, like me, feel compelled to see it, compelled in a way they wouldn’t be if Ledger were alive and well. This accidental—and unlikely—swansong had me, after the entirety of its 152 minutes had rolled by, still wondering why Ledger wanted to do this.
Even accepting (or trying to accept) The Dark Knight on “comic book terms,” whatever those might be, the movie would still be awful. There’s lots of violence, but none of it connects to anything, unless corporate nihilism counts, yet it’s all too bland to be genuinely offensive. Despite the assorted bludgeonings, point-blank shootings, and knifings almost constantly being displayed, intimated, or talked about in precise detail, there isn’t a drop of blood to be seen. Just as curious, and as calculated, no one swears in this movie. Cops, detectives, and criminals are omnipresent (The Dark Knight’s cast is a veritable multicultural rainbow of potential victims and guilty crud—in fact, if you aren’t one or the other, this movie has no place for you). However, you won’t hear any of these lawbreakers or enforcers saying, “Fuck.” Their tongues have been sterilized so that (one presumes) all-American families can enjoy a mortally wounded banker’s dying soliloquy, just before an explosive device is placed in his mouth, without having their Christian ears assailed by profanity. No bloodshed, no cursing, and, what’s even more suspect, no outrage either. The director Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriting brother Jonathan Nolan just assume and take on faith (very bad faith) that we, as spectators, feel such ennui toward catastrophic violence that even a scenario as morally wretched as the Joker’s teasing promise to assassinate Gotham City’s Hispanic mayor, in the midst of an elaborate funeral parade (complete with bagpipers) for a black police commissioner, feels weightless. The Nolans’ doomy, nightmare fantasies have no tingle—and the filmmaking sibs indiscriminately unfurl set-pieces of gloom one after another, as if off a conveyor belt.
A crime thriller, which I take it The Dark Knight aims to be, with or without a caped superhero, needs something more substantial to go on than overturned police cars. Nolan doesn’t know how to create suspense; based on what I’ve seen here, I doubt it occurs to him that he ought to have tried. How much of an incoherent mess does Nolan make? After prepping and priming us for Mayor Garcia’s demise, the scene climaxes with another official taking the hit; there’s no mention of whether Garcia survived or perished. Perhaps an hour goes by. Then he shows up for a few seconds to no real consequence—the movie skirts both his survival and his all-too-recent status as a target. At this point, if I hadn’t realized it already, it’s apparent that there’s nothing going on inside this dung heap of explosions. Nothing’s ultimately at stake in these stretched out skits that, in dialogue and temperament, recall (none too fondly) the Irwin Allen productions of the 1970s. The most slovenly disingenuous of these involves two competing ferryboats of passengers, one consisting of orange-uniformed prisoners, the other a lifeboat of disgruntled NPR-liberals. One boat will be blown up, the other will survive (at least until the next jerry-rigged horror), and the passengers themselves must decide, so of course they put the matter to a vote, which takes a good amount of screen time to tally. This may be the worst directed “major” motion picture to swim into my ken in an extraordinarily long while. Nolan can’t write; he can’t establish what’s supposedly occurring in a scene; and he has no cinematic eye—his film is rife with “impressive” visual effects that undoubtedly required rigorous technical skill, but that in his ill-timing fail to result in excitement or wonder or pleasure. The lone thrilling optical illusion occurs only a minute or two in; as a prelude to the bank heist, two robbers in clown make-up slide between skyscrapers on a thin wire hoisted across. Looking down the length of the Boeing IMAX screen at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, at the ground “beneath,” I could feel that desired momentary twinge of vertigo shaking up my senses.
Otherwise, everything about this Warner Bros. spectacle reinforces why I spend much of my movie-going at so-called “art films,” though most of those aren’t very good, either. Memento, for one, while we’re on the subject of Christopher Nolan’s shortcomings, I found totally worthless.
One more example of the big-time Nolan’s squeaky-clean ineptitude: The movie has a Hong Kong subplot that culminates, after much zigzagging between HK and Gotham, with a corrupt corporate executive being hauled back to the states by Batman (Christian Bale), then kidnapped by the Joker, who sits with him on top of an enormous pile of money the Joker stole from a bank in the opening sequence. Ledger’s Joker slides down to the bottom, douses the cash with gasoline, and there isn’t so much as a cut from Nolan’s camera back up to the man who’s going to be burned alive. No reaction shot, no futile attempt at escape, not even an off-camera scream, lest we be made aware a life is being taken. The Dark Knight, with its sanitized, hollowed-out approach to the most outré violence, would seem to be the movie that Bush’s Abu Ghraib America deserves.
But what about Ledger’s performance? Is he as good in this role as the advance drumbeats and critical hosannas would indicate? Regretfully, I do not concur. I loved Ledger’s earlier work, and I mourned him, but in my view, the Oscar talk circling ‘round amounts to no more than wishful thinking and white male conservative guilt—the guilt of a deeply homophobic mainstream press and the Academy that would not honor him for Brokeback Mountain. Now, of course, as the Joker, a murderous psychotic, he’s someone the flacks can all relate to, but his work in The Dark Knight is far from extraordinary.
Unusual for Ledger, he approaches the character externally instead of internally. As the Nolans’ script gave Ledger very little to work with, it is the make-up artist who created a character for him to play. The expressionistic contortion of the Joker’s red smear of a mouth, with its horrifying stab wounds, against a visage of white greasepaint implies a history that the Nolans leave out. Even the most fantastical villain, nonetheless, needs some kind of psychological underpinnings. Without them, Ledger hits the same note over and over again. Despite claims that his conception would differ vastly from Jack Nicholson’s, I, without virtue of having seen the 1989 movie, can see bits of Nicholsonian manic glee cropping up in Ledger, albeit filtered through the strains of Johnny Depp’s high-pitched Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s repulsive Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ledger’s Joker has more vocal range than Depp’s Wonka, yet Ledger finds no color in the upper register. His voice will go way up high, then plummet way down deep, but nothing about the character expands or changes. It’s clear to me that Ledger’s soul wasn’t in this—his heart certainly wasn’t. And it’s jarring to see the finest actor of his generation, in his last complete film, just marking time. Comparisons have been made to A Clockwork Orange, but these are as off base as the rest of the hoopla. Ledger’s Joker lacks the scale and intensity of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex the Droog, and Kubrick’s 1971 film, despite its flaws, was a genuine vision of… something, to be argued and interpreted, not merely an overpriced contraption that exists solely to rake in cash. When the Joker taunts and tortures his victims, such as in the video footage of a blubbering Batman imitator about to go under, the effect manages to be unpleasant, though it isn't the sort of searing, transgressive flight that Nolan, in his PG-13 fence-straddling, perhaps strove for.
“Do you want to know why I use a knife?” the Joker, in custody at a police station, asks a cop. This is probably Ledger’s one truly interesting scene. Sitting perfectly still, he explains that guns are too fast, that with a slower method of being killed, “In their last moments, people show you what they’re really like.” Baiting the cop further about dead policemen, the Joker ventures, “Would you like to know which of them were cowards?” This is one of the few moments that punctures through the movie’s flat-footedness; it just isn’t enough to compensate, though, for the pseudo-ironic, fuddy-duddy lines the actors have to deliver the rest of the time, i.e., “What doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger” or “What’s the difference between you and me?” “I’m not wearing hockey pants,” etc, etc.
And so, it’s a little sad to leave Ledger in this surrounding.
It’s Aaron Eckhart who gives the movie’s best performance. A couple of acquaintances I’ve mentioned this to didn’t want to hear it, and quite possibly I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it either.
Lastly, I’ll say this re Christian Bale in the nominal leading role of the caped crusader/millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. He’s a disaster. I’ve enjoyed Bale’s work on those occasions when he plays a real human being, as in The New World and I’m Not There (also featuring a fine turn from Heath Ledger). But being, or trying to be, a tough, macho guy is so far outside the realm of Bale’s expertise, you wonder, other than the allure of dollar signs, why he even tries. He looks absurd in his bulky leather Bat-outfit, yet sans costume, and into Wayne’s pinstriped suits, Bale appears equally ridiculous. Never one to be traditionally handsome, Bale unaccountably insists on taking roles where what’s unusual or distinctive about him gets airbrushed or sandpapered away. No matter how many excursions to the gym Bale goes on, there are certain strengths of personality than an altered physique can’t entirely disguise. He’s never going to be convincing in a conventional role the way a conventional actor would be; that Bale never once indicates to us that he’s having a good time with The Dark Knight’s phony apocalypse or smothered attempts at Pop Art humor pretty much gives the show away. In the majority of his scenes as Bruce Wayne, Bale gets caught opposite the effortless natural ease of Michael Caine, as his manservant Alfred. If ever there were an actor you wouldn’t want to be standing next to as you’re faking it, Caine is it. – NPT
July 18, 2008
In Search of a Midnight Kiss
Directed by Alex Holdridge
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Directed by Woody Allen
Five years ago, the writer-director (and sometimes actor) Alex Holdridge unveiled the romantic comedy Sexless, which I thought to be the best Woody Allen movie ever made by someone other than Woody Allen. The carrot-topped Holdridge unabashedly failed to conceal his chief influence; part of the thrill of watching Sexless came from its fusion of Allen homage with slacker ethos. Here were the jaunty rhythms of Sleeper, the neurotic badinage of Manhattan, but transplanted to the dusty, sun-scorched climate of Austin, Texas. As it happens, I lived in Austin, off and on, between 1996-2000, and it was a tonic to see Holdridge’s characters traipse along the same streets I half-recalled wandering. In one of the daylight exterior shots, someone drives down a highway west of Austin, the kind of open road bordered on one side by a towering cliff wall of jagged earth—the terrain you’d pass en route to the Hill Country—and my heart surely skipped a beat to see this landscape again, after so many years’ “exile” in the Northwest. The strong sense of place, bound with Holdridge’s wit and keenly perceived romantic tensions between young couples, made Sexless feel alive to me in a way that Richard Linklater’s early works do not.
Equally significant, Holdridge nailed the Allen trademarks, the use of jazz swing on the soundtrack being one of them, yet rendered these signatures as his own. It seemed to me then—and you must recall that after the horrendous Sweet and Lowdown I boycotted Allen films for half a decade—Holdridge’s movie was a substantial improvement over anything Allen had done in a long while: the imitation was more fully realized than the thing being imitated.
(Since then, I’ve caught up with the Allens I skipped. As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, the Darius Khondji-photographed Anything Else is as close to a masterpiece as Allen has come post-Husbands and Wives. The vigorously panned Hollywood Ending turned out to be a surprisingly inspired farce, with Allen and Téa Leoni unexpectedly perfect comic foils. On the down side, the unwatchable Curse of the Jade Scorpion, an abysmally miscast picture, has surfaced as Allen’s all-time low, surpassing even the Sean Penn vehicle; and as for everything from Melinda and Melinda onward, well, readers have only to trawl the archive pages to know.)
Holdridge’s multi-varied achievements in Sexless went largely unheralded outside his south Texas stomping grounds. He dared to give this light wisp of a comedy a brooding, unhappy ending. The hero loses the girl, and for this fidelity to realism, the hero did not win a distribution deal either. (Yes, even our indies must be sugarcoated.) As of this writing, Sexless remains unavailable in any video format; I managed to catch the movie only because it turned up at the Port Townsend Film Festival in ’03.
Now, by some whimsy of the calendar, both Holdridge and Allen have new works opening in the same month, once again inviting comparison. Only there is very little to compare this time around. All In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Vicky Cristina Barcelona have in common is that neither succeeds.
As one of the few critics to champion Allen’s previous movie Cassandra’s Dream—and I do mean few—the fraternity consists of three: Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, James Verniere in the Boston Herald, and myself, then writing in Willamette Week. Unlike Dargis and Verniere, who got to expound at length their enthusiastic defenses, I had to stay within the confines of a 200-word capsule. Even so, I’m prouder of that capsule than of anything else I published during my 13-month tenure as a WW freelancer. Because of my endorsement, I like to think, Cassandra’s Dream stayed afloat in Portland theatres somewhere in the neighborhood of four weeks, not bad for a small picture that was almost universally reviled. This was after a year in which I’d kicked the crap out of La Vie en Rose, The Savages, Away From Her, and any number of similarly overrated bombs. An endorsement from me, rare as it was in WW’s pages, had, conceivably, come to mean something.
Similar in plot yet vastly superior in design to the tawdry Match Point, Woody Allen’s latest London-set foray into the crime thriller genre emerges out of left field as a sustained, tension-filled piece of work. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell brilliantly play off each other as squabbling, working-class brothers whose increasingly expensive tastes lead them to accept a murderous business proposal from their wealthy uncle (a suavely amoral Tom Wilkinson). The movie’s first half feels like Woody’s variation on John Osborne’s kitchen-sink realist dramas of the late ‘50s. Perhaps because of this, Cassandra’s Dream has a moral gravity (however out of style that may be) that was missing from Match Point. It’s possible to care about these blokes, their struggles with debt and depression (Farrell) or with pretending to be rich to impress a girl (McGregor, swooning over Hayley Atwell). But then Woody’s writing here is substantially better than his last three films, and McGregor has an energetic way of making even the unlikeliest lines sing. As the story grows darker, Farrell, embodying a uniquely male kind of vulnerability, shows us the fear caused by violence—a state of being rarely depicted on screen with as much truth as this. (January 16, 2008)
So, to resume, on the heels of that film, I allowed myself high hopes for the deliciously titled Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The upward lilt of those repeated vowel sounds, buttressed by rapidly reoccurring hard-c consonants in the first two words, followed by the throaty, low notes of the city’s name after the women’s, felt indicative of a frolicsome, festive spirit. Yet what pervades Allen’s first film to be shot in Spain is a spirit of churlishness. It isn’t an ode to the death of romance so much as it is a peevish lockdown, a wholesale annihilation of the romantic impulse. Despite being well acted—Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are as extraordinary as they are beautiful, and even Scarlett Johansson, a performer of limited means, through evincing a giddier, more relaxed persona than usual, rises to the occasion that might have been—Vicky Cristina is a candidate for the city dump. The movie showcases the laziest misdirection of Allen’s career. The light-filled, summertime Spanish settings seem to have cast a spell over everyone, everyone except Allen, that is, who responds to the pansexual conjuring of his players by slapping voice-over narration over their every move. And not just any innocuous voice-over: If Allen were reading these stage directions himself, his patented Brooklynese whine might have lent this imprisonment device a comic gilt. As is, there’s only guilt, and it’s all his. Allen inexplicably hired Christopher Evan Welch to over-enunciate, in a booming tone of voice, actions and thoughts that could very well be conveyed simply by letting the viewers watch and letting the actors act. A cut from an interior scene to a shot of a sailboat in a harbor doesn’t need to be accompanied by some schmuck telling us, “And so they all went sailing on Mark’s boat that afternoon.” Vicky Cristina Barcelona is rife with this kind of idiocy: “Lunch was served on the terrace,” or “During the course of conversation, an awkward moment occurred.” It’s as if Allen considers us too stupid to grasp transitions. And while Welch isn’t exactly shouting, his relentless intonations stampede like a Mack truck splaying its tire tracks.
Some of this appalling narration merits closer scrutiny. When Bardem and Johansson (visually, these two pair splendidly, especially in their kitchen floor lovemaking that’s reflected by an oven’s chrome surface) enter a café, Welch numbingly informs us, “He took her to lunch with his friends who were poets and artists. Cristina held her own quite well.” A quick cutaway prevents us from seeing this for ourselves. Allen, in his third picture with Johansson, might be saying that he has no faith in her acting, therefore he negates the scene before it’s even begun, although, of their three collaborations, this is the first role that’s been right for her range. But the real crux, I think, is that Allen has only the most infantile notions of what poets and artists are supposed to be (the insipid banter of the bistro framing device in Melinda and Melinda supports this theory), and so he backs out of the scene to spare himself ever greater embarrassment. He cuts to an exterior shot of Bardem’s courtly romantic Juan Antonio in front of a Gaudí building with Rebecca Hall’s Vicky (shrill and strident, she’s playing the Woody surrogate). Bardem, so buff and handsome in black short sleeves and a beard of stubble, could transform the landscape of VCB’s tepid psychological agenda, yet Allen can’t even find joy or wonder in the Gaudí architecture. Although he parades his cast from postcard locale to locale, Susan Seidelman used Barcelona to infinitely richer effect in Gaudí Afternoon.
If the voice-overs were merely intrusions, that would be one thing. As the movie turns increasingly contemptuous (of us, of the characters), the lines Welch reads carry a sneering, scolding, smugly puritanical quality. Of Patricia Clarkson’s unhappily married matron, we’re told that Spanish guitar music “never failed to move Judy in some magical way.” Or as a segue to sightseeing with Juan Antonio, “He took them to the sculpture that was so meaningful to him.” These observations have the air of someone peering down long spectacles or at lab slides through a microscope. They reek of snottily inhuman posturing, except that, in all likelihood, it might not be a posture: this is what Allen has become in old age.
Worse still, there are whiffs of xenophobia wafting off this poisonous romp. The sheltered Allen treats the Spaniards as if they were exotic toys, objects meant to be fussed over, then placed back on the shelf once the hegemonic Americans have moved on. Which is insane, in addition to racist. Bardem and Cruz, playing husband and wife action painters at war with each other, are the most commanding figures on screen. They infuse an element of fire into Allen’s caricatures that could not possibly have been there on the page. And so when Allen shucks them off, the director goes beyond misanthropy—he’s a fool. Couldn’t Allen see the gravitas Bardem and Cruz bring to his thin picture and couldn’t he have expanded his gnarled worldview into something less ungenerous than trivializing them with a gunfight? It’s revealing that when Allen packs two characters off to a movie, he sends them to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. What this particular choice says about Allen isn’t good. Though in the context of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he might just as well have had his moviegoers take in a matinee of Dogville.
Regarding Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s status as a comedy, it has a grand total of one humorous exchange. As the Bardem-Johansson coupling merges into a ménage-à-trois with Cruz, the three struggle with the language barrier over lunch. Cristina speaks no Spanish; Cruz’s Maria Elena at first refuses to converse in English, then reluctantly concedes. When asked if she has any facility with foreign tongues, Cristina pertly deadpans, “I studied Chinese. I thought it sounded pretty.” The disbelieving Maria Elena urges the younger woman to demonstrate her knowledge, and Cristina mutters a few words of unaccented Mandarin so poorly she seems to have studied with the lounge-singing cruise director in Up The Yangtze. (A friend who was at the same screening I was swears that Johansson and Cruz must have improvised this, that Allen is now so beyond being funny as to be incapable of it.)
Cruz, as the suicidal/homicidal Maria Elena, wears witch-like expressions and sports wildly tousled hair. Her half-smoked cigarettes are tightly clenched. Even as Maria Elena thaws toward Cristina, Cruz delves further along into Maria Elena’s damaged interior. In the movie’s best scene, the women observe Juan Antonio at work on a canvas, and Maria Elena quietly clues Cristina in as to where the painter’s confident ideas, style, and vision came from.
Both the dark bloom of this moment and the overall cloddishness of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, however, indicate the same thing: that Allen hasn’t shaken off the fatalism of Cassandra’s Dream and Match Point. Earlier, when Juan Antonio introduces Vicky to his elderly, reclusive father, he tells her that his father writes poetry, yet refuses to publish, in the belief that, “In two thousand years, civilization hasn’t learned how to love,” and thus he’s “punishing” the world by withholding his beautiful poems from it. After the movie ended, forcefully over-narrated down to its final frame, I thought—is Vicky Cristina Barcelona how Allen punishes the world? Not by withholding beauty, but by insisting that nothing is beautiful?
Holdridge, writing and directing yet remaining off-camera for In Search of a Midnight Kiss, still believes, refreshingly enough, in the necessity of what Allen discards. Shooting in black-and-white, Holdridge opens his film with a montage of couples kissing—at a Laundromat, in the pouring rain, or positioned in the lower right of a wide angle as graffiti proclaiming “No War” looms large on the frame’s upper left. It’s dazzlingly evocative of the opening montage in Allen’s Manhattan. A guitar and violin strum along on the soundtrack, imbuing a Hot Club vibe to the imagery. And there’s narration, too, although Scoot McNairy, the movie’s lead, reads in such a flat voice that he’s instantly forgettable.
Holdridge soon declares his independence from Allen by having McNairy create porn via Photoshop and masturbate to it in his living room. Caught by his housemate Jacob (a splendid Brian McGuire), protestations of embarrassment versus “it’s only natural” ensue; what becomes clear only minutes in is that Midnight Kiss doesn’t have the same level of wobbly assurance as Sexless. The stagy household banter between roomies over whether the morose, hirsute Wilson (McNairy) should post a personals ad on Craig’s List, so that he can scrounge up a date for later that night, which just happens to be New Year’s Eve, feels too much like explication.
The pacing, for the rest of the movie, runs the gamut from sluggish to dreary. And although McGuire exudes considerable charm and lanky confidence in the best friend role (he’s as effortlessly convincing here as he was as the slightly withdrawn, on-the-wagon alcoholic in Sexless) the leads played by McNairy and Sara Simmonds, as Vivian, the shrieking harridan Wilson unearths in the personals, leave everything to be desired.
Cutting to the chase: As a study in contemporary urban loneliness, Midnight Kiss is very nearly a complete failure. After more than an hour of screen time spent bickering and squabbling (the movie does capture a sense of the dislocation inherent to walking and talking with someone whom you otherwise wouldn’t have met except under outré circumstances, but what of it?), Wilson and Vivian are sitting (on the floor, if I remember) in his living room listening to his answering machine play messages. The voice of Wilson’s ex-girlfriend, back home in Texas, wishing him well, becomes a presence in the space. The makeshift New Year’s Eve companions, with nothing in common besides their own desperation, take it all in silently. A teardrop falls down Wilson’s face. The sadness he feels isn’t entirely for his former lover; he also misses who he was when he was with her—an earlier version of himself he prefers to the way he is now, transplanted from Austin to LA, and not making it as a screenwriter. The silence of Simmonds and McNairy is more eloquent than any of the lines they speak.
Holdridge’s problem here, besides the casting, stems from wanting to have comedy both ways—to be sophisticated and witty and at the same time pandering and vulgar. It doesn’t work. His depiction of a dumb, crude Texas stereotype (a psychotic Bubba on Vivian’s trail) feels altogether out of place. Although Holdridge’s writing falters, his visual intuitions are spot-on. Midnight Kiss’s chief accomplishment lies in showing us sides of Los Angeles that movies seldom show. The camera lovingly glides across downtown LA’s Art Deco architecture or pans upwards, as the characters continue chattering unseen, at ledges, friezes, sculptures, ancient marquees, the textured ceiling inside the Orpheum Theatre, and other historical delights above eye level. A morning-after montage of sunlight filtering through the pre-dawn chiaroscuro over the hills may be the cinematographer Robert Murphy’s loveliest contribution.
I would be interested to see what Holdridge came up with, if he ever decided to make a movie without people in it, or with people simply as figures in a landscape, while ornate buildings, flashing signs, tall trees, and spray-painted boxcars assume their rightful places.
Finally, about Scoot McNairy, and I write this with some reluctance: in profile shots, he has hideous teeth. His face and lips seem to be the result of implants or reconstructive surgeries that were botched, yet he carries himself in a manner suggestive of unattractive men who imagine themselves to be unassumingly hot. When he’s lying in bed, the camera pulls in for a close shot of his mouth and gums, as he’s saying, “Yeah, he’s a stallion,” in reference to the loud lovemaking of the couple on the other side of their thin apartment walls. What the camera’s emphasis on McNairy’s mouth tells me is this: this is one actor who could play the Joker sans make-up. – NPT