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From Barcelona to Megiddo: Vicky Christina Barcelona, Towelhead, and Religulous reviewed!

Vicky Christina Barcelona — Yes, like most of you I prefer Woody Allen’s “earlier, funnier” works.  But this is, I think, one of the strongest movies that Woody has written & directed in the last decade and a half.  Vicky Christina Barcelona follows two girls, Vicky (Rebecca Hall, who must have felt bad at being left off all the posters) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) on a summer holiday in Spain.  The girls are close friends but are very different in nature: Vicky is practical and responsible, while Christina is more spontaneous and emotional.  Their lives quickly become entwined with that of strapping Spanish artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz).

While Johansson has appeared in several recent Woody Allen films, Hall, Bardem and Cruz are all welcome additions to Woody’s repertoire of actors.  Bardem and Cruz, in particular, bring an energy that’s been missing from many of Mr. Allen’s recent works.  Indeed, they both play characters (and sympathetic characters, at that) that are quite different from the more intellectual romantic leads that characterize Woody Allen movies.  There isn’t really an Alvy Singer to be found here.  (The closest approximation would be Vicky’s fiancee Doug, who is depicted not as a hero but as someone rather boring and close-minded.)  While we’re blessed to have a new Woody Allen film almost once a year, sometimes his films can seem to blend together.  (For instance, while many loved Match Point, I couldn’t stop comparing it to what I saw as the similar but superior earlier film, Crimes and Misdemeanors.)  But Vicky Christina Barcelona is quite a unique creation, unlike any previous Woody Allen film, and I really enjoy it for that.

It’s not perfect.  I didn’t care too much for the use of narration throughout the film, which seemed in many cases to spell out for the audience events and motivations that could more easily and elegantly been shown to us through the action.  And as with most stories of love triangles (or, in this case, a love rectangle), I found the set-up to be of more interest than the resolution.  But still, this is a strong new work from Woody Allen that I recommend.

Towelhead — I adore American Beauty, so when I heard that Alan Ball (the author of that film), had a new movie that he was writing and, for the first time, directing, I was immediately interested.  Towelhead tells the story of Jasira (Summer Bishil), a 13 year-old Arab-American girl.  At the start of the film, Jasira’s mother (Maria Bello) sends her to Houston, Texas, to live with her father Rifat (Peter Marcdissi), a strict man of Lebanese descent.  With the adults around her flawed and troubled — and that includes the flirtatious next-door neighbor and army-reservist Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart) — Jasira has to find her own way through encounters with racism and her growing sexuality.  

The performances are terrific across the board.  Summer Bishil is phenomenal in the lead role.  She’s in every scene, and she is able to walk the fine line between innocence and adulthood necessary for the character.  Exchart is also excellent — both likable and intensely unlikable.  And I shouldn’t forget Toni Collette as one of the few positive adult role-models in Jasira’s life.

Right from our first meeting with Jasira, in which she is in the middle of a troubling encounter with her mom’s boyfriend Barry (Chris Messina), it is apparent that this is not a movie that is going to pull any punches in terms of its frank depiction of sexual issues.  This makes Towelhead a powerful film, although one that at times can be difficult to watch.  There are some moments of great humor to be found in the film, although while American Beauty had a balance of humor and unpleasantness, here the focus is definitely on the moments of unpleasantness.  Its certainly a movie I’ve been thinking about since I saw it.  

Religulous — Talk about a movie I’ve been thinking about ever since I saw it!  Comedian Bill Maher travels around asking people of all faiths (Christians, Jews, and Muslims) probing questions about their beliefs.  Maher is an outspoken agnostic who does not understand how otherwise intelligent, rational people are able to accept the many outlandish concepts found in religion.  (A talking snake an a man who lived in a fish are two famous stories that Maher refers to repeatedly, quite incredulously.)  His strategy through much of the film is to talk to all sorts of different people — both every-day folks on the street, as well as a number of different religious leaders — and basically step back and watch them squirm as they find themselves either unable or unwilling to answer his questions.

For much of its running time, the film is hysterical.  Watching person after person find themselves completely flummoxed by Maher’s simple, direct questioning is a riot.  Maher is almost never mean-spirited, which helps his point.  He comes across as someone who simply REALLY WANTS TO UNDERSTAND just why the heck all these people believe the things that they believe.  

The most controversial part of the film is probably the closing ten minutes, in which Maher launches into a rant, set to apocalyptic imagery and music, that basically sums up his reasons for making this film.  He finds that the tremendous baggage associated with religion — all the wars, death, and hatred carried out in its name, by people using religious beliefs as an excuse for the most vile, abhorrent behavior — far outweighs any good that has come from it.  This finale might make people who have been laughing along with the film sit up and say “whoa, I’m not sure I agree with that.”  (I was one of those people.)  But I can’t and won’t discount Maher’s arguments either.  Whether you passionately agree with him, passionately disagree, or find yourself somewhere in the middle, this is an extremely thought-provoking film, and I love it for that.  It is also, as I wrote above, very very funny as well as breathtakingly fearless in the way Maher goes after one of the most sacred of sacred cows here in America: organized religion.  

Definitely a film not to be missed.

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