That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

The Black Stallion & Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Monday, September 1st, 2008 8:32 pm—Film

The Black Stallion (USA 1979, Adventure/Drama), Writer: Melissa Mathison; Director: Carroll Ballard

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain/USA 2008, Comedy/Drama/Romance), Writer/Director: Woody Allen

This joint post has a joint dedication: to MH, my favourite pink shirt-wearing, donut-gobbling cop, who lent me The Black Stallion; and ES, my favourite rum brownie-guzzling racewalker, who specifically requested a review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

The Black Stallion is based on Walter Farley’s 1941 novel of the same name. It tells the story of young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and a majestic Arabian stallion called The Black. The two meet aboard a ship off the African coast that is headed for disaster, and soon find themselves stranded on an island, the only survivors of the shipwreck. In time, they form a bond that helps keep both of them alive. When they’re finally rescued, Alec meets retired racehorse jockey Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney), and the two decide to fight the odds and try to enter The Black in the most anticipated horse race of the year.

Those over-the-top, schlocky Disney family movies have nothing on The Black Stallion, a movie as powerful and elegant as the animal it’s about. Carroll Ballard made his directorial debut with this film, and his cinematography background has a lot to do with why The Black Stallion is so effective. Ballard tells the story simply, relying on beautiful images and gestures rather than heavy-handed dialogue or a melodramatic score. The scene when the snake comes up on Alec is as gripping (I screamed, I was so nervous) as the scene when Alec finally approaches The Black is touching; the boy and the horse do a sweet little dance as they get to know each other, one pushing while the other pulls, until Alec finally wins his trust and nestles against the animal’s neck. Editor Robert Dalva does a wonderful job as well; he has a keen feel for how long to hold the shots.

Ballard maintains this subtle approach throughout the film. He isn’t afraid to let images speak for themselves, or to let Alec and The Black run off frame when they first ride for the press on that foggy, misty night; he trusts that the audience can imagine what might be happening off-camera. Even the climax at the big race isn’t overwhelmed by the swell of an overbearing score; it’s mostly just the boy and his horse, as it should be.

The trust formed between Alex and The Black is largely what makes The Black Stallion so special for me. Part of what I love most about animals is this: the only condition they put on their love is that you treat them well. You have to earn their trust, but once you have it, they don’t give a damn about your credentials or accomplishments, what you do with your time away from them or what you look like. They are capable of pure, guileless love and fierce loyalty. Once Alec is able to break past The Black’s defences and prove that he’s a worthy friend, there is nothing that can come between the two.

If you haven’t already seen The Black Stallion, I highly recommend that you rent it next time you’re in the video store. This phrase is over-used, but it truly is a wonderful movie for people of all ages. It was so moving and inspiring that it left me in tears. Luckily I had my Tim Hortons napkins to mop them up. Thanks, MH.

Continuing with the food theme, and because ES is such a devoted foodie, I’ll start my thoughts on Vicky Cristina Barcelona by describing it the way I did when someone first asked what I thought of it: “It’s like McCain cake.” There’s little substance to it, and it’s not really good for you, but it kind of tastes yummy if you’re in the mood.

I’m not sure I was. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is about two young Americans spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is conservative and pragmatic, in Spain to work on her Masters thesis while her fiancé waits for her back home. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is single and impetuous, tagging along with Vicky so she can get over a disastrous romance. The two are approached one night by painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them to his home in Oviedo for sight-seeing, wine-drinking and love-making. Things get complicated when both women fall for Juan Antonio, and his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) comes back into the picture.

It seems as if writer-director Woody Allen just didn’t want to try very hard with this one, as has often seemed the case with him over the last few years. He relies on inane narration to spell out the simplest facts and character reflections, rather than filming a line, a gesture or a look to convey that background or emotion. Even the title speaks to a lack of effort. Vicky. Cristina. Barcelona. It’s like he left naming the film to the last minute, and then thought, “Ah, screw it, I’ll just use these scribblings in the margin.”

I realize all of this must have been intentional. The narration is just too trite not to be tongue-in-cheek. And it had to be have been in jest that Allen chose “Catalan Identity” as Vicky’s thesis topic. This seeming detachment from, and boredom with, the film could well be making a point about American apathy and superficiality, and the fruitless search for meaning and fulfillment in other cultures when it can’t be found at home. I could delve into all of that. Or maybe I’ll just pick something up at Loblaws.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is enjoyable if you’re in the mood for a nice, light snack. It’s fun and distracting, and Hall and Cruz are fabulous in their roles. Just don’t go expecting brain food. And be sure to bring something strong to wash it all down with.

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