REBECCA HALL

We finally got around to watching “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which was a very successful film for Woody Allen in 2008. Besides making a lot of money – in proportion to its budget – the film won and was nominated for a ton of awards, including a best supporting actress Oscar for Penelope Cruz.

Allen pursues his interest in neurotic people, but in an unusual environment for him — some very attractive locations in Spain. The story involves two young American women — Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) — who get a chance to spend a summer in Spain in the home  of a distant relative of Vicky’s, played by Patricia Clarkson. Vicky, who is a bit prim and self-assured is engaged to marry a well-groomed go-getter. Cristina, who hasn’t been successful at relationships, tentatively plays at being a free spirit. Allen uses a narrator – Christopher Evan Welch – to describe in a documentary fashion the summer in Spain in which the lives of both women are thrown into disarray.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON

The agent for the turmoil is Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), an artist whose relationship with his wife, Maria Elena (Cruz), was disrupted when she stabbed him in a characteristic fit of rage. Though it is disrupted, the relationship is not over — certainly not in Gonzalo’s mind or loins. Despite Vicky’s protestations, Cristina becomes involved with Gonzalo — in fact, moves in with him — after he unsuccessfully invites both women to join him in a menage. Vicky disapproves and says so, but by now — thanks to Gonzalo — she’s not nearly as sure of herself.

Things get very complicated even before Maria Elena reappears — with a flourish — to play a wholly unexpected part or two in turning things upside down.

JAVIER BARDEM

The credibility of this story hangs heavily on Gonzalo’s charm, and Bardem has it to spare. It’s an interesting combination of raw magnetism and sexual grace that plausibly could, on the one hand,  take advantage of Cristine’s confusion and, on the other hand, crumble Vicky’s moral fortifications, and — if there were a third hand — inspire Maria Elena’s capacity for both lust and murder.

As usual, when Allen is on his game, this film is well written, well directed, well cast, well photographed, and well acted.

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in a scene from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"

ELLE FANNING

ELLE FANNING

We watched “Phoebe in Wonderland,” a 2008 fantasy written and directed by Daniel Barnz.

This film is an off-beat tale about a nine-year-old girl, Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning), who is brilliant and creative, but who confounds her parents and her rigid teachers and principal with outbursts of inappropriate remarks and behavior.

Phoebe’s mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman as a brunette), is frustrated by her inability to find time — amid housekeeping and raising two little girls — to convert her academic dissertation on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” novels into a book. With her mother’s encouragement, Phoebe has immersed herself in Carroll’s fanciful neighborhoods to the point that she has frequent imaginary encounters with his characters. The competing forces in Phoebe’s psyche are effectively portrayed by Barnz through the blurring of identities between people in Phoebe’s real life and Humpty Dumpty, the Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, and the Mad Hatter

PATRICIA CLARKSON

PATRICIA CLARKSON

Coincidentally — or not, depending on your point of view — Miss Dodger, the new, idiosyncratic drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) is mounting a musical production based on Carroll’s stories. This enterprise becomes a kind of sanctuary for Phoebe — the one place where she can overcome her compulsive outbursts. But there is too much amiss with the little girl, and with her parents, and with the management of the school, to stave off a crisis and an unexpected if not totally comfortable resolution.

Like the film “Millions” which I wrote about here on October 19, this is not for viewers who take things literally or insist on reality in their movies. The film is blessed by a talented cast — also including Bill Pullman as Peter Lichten, Phoebe’s father, and Bailee Madison as Olivia, Phoebe’s sister. The beautiful Tessa Albertson has a brief but haunting non-speaking role as Alice.

TESSA ALBERTSON

TESSA ALBERTSON

This film argues that a person cannot be defined by one or two aspects of her personality. The world around Phoebe — her parents, her siblings, her peers, and most of her teachers — failed her as long as they embraced only the “acceptable” parts of the girl or hoped to make the whole girl acceptable to them by badgering or ridiculing her.

The inscrutable Miss Dodger and the fleeting figure of Alice — who may be better acquainted than they let on at first — provide the only unqualified reassurance Phoebe receives that she, with her strengths and her weaknesses, is a person of value.

FELICITY HUFFING, ELLE FANNING, and BILL PULLMAN

FELICITY HUFFING, ELLE FANNING, and BILL PULLMAN