Koch on Film

By Ed Koch

“Transsiberian” (+)

Regrettably, this is not as good a film as it might have been. The subject matter is explosive with such great potential. This is not the Orient Express with its opulence. The Transsiberian travels across the same Siberia with its trackless (except for the train tracks) forested areas, but on this train, poor people travel and the bathrooms do not work.

For Westerners like me, if the bathrooms don’t work, nothing else matters, no matter how good. To digress, when I traveled to China in 1979, I was shocked that no matter how good the hotel was – I’m not talking about the magnificent hotels in Hong Kong or the 5-star hotels of today everywhere in China – the bathroom tile floors were dirty. When I traveled to Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the bathrooms were clean, but the food was awful. When I traveled to East Berlin in 1961, the buildings on the major street, Stalinallee, were literally crumbling with large concrete holes in the outer skin of many buildings.

Now back to “Transsiberian.” We meet four people – Roy (Woody Harrelson), his wife, Jessie (Emily Mortimer), and lovers, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) a Spaniard and his 20-year-old American girlfriend, Abby (Kate Mara). Roy and Jessie are coming back from Japan where they taught English classes. Carlos, we learn, is a drug smuggler.

Woody Harrelson plays his role creating a character who has many hillbilly mannerisms. His wife is very sophisticated and appears to have a dark past and gets caught up with the Spaniard, Carlos. Halfway through the movie enters Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a Russian detective. I forgot to mention that the movie is set in the period after the U.S.S.R. has broken up and Russia is its successor. Grinko is looking for drug smugglers. The story includes an attempted rape, murder, a side trip to an ancient abandoned church, stopovers at towns along the way, torture and other surprises. Regrettably, it had too many unbelievable events occur. Nevertheless, it is interesting, especially if you are interested in Russia. The two greatest movies for me that give the feel of Russia and the U.S.S.R. are “Dr. Zivago” and “Reds.” This flick pales in comparison, but will provide sufficient information to your store of information on Russia to make it worthwhile.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (+)

A missed opportunity for Woody Allen. Overall it is disappointing, but if you’re an Allen groupie or someone who sees all his films because they usually provide some pleasure or a memorable moment, catch this one.

As I sat on a bench waiting for the audience to depart from an earlier show, an attractive, well-dressed woman in her 50s approached me and said, “I did not identify with anyone in the movie, and I really did not like it.” How could she identify with a movie that opens at a restaurant in Barcelona where two young American women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), are approached by an artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them to travel with him on a small plane to a resort town where the three of them would engage in a ménage-a-trois?

The young women do accompany Juan to the country where they meet his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who looks as though she might turn the event into a menage-a-quatre. You’ll have to see the film to find out what actually takes place.

The best performance among the cast of distinguished actors is given by Rebecca Hall. The problem with the story is that nothing is believable except for Vicky’s boyfriend, Doug (Chris Messina), who flew to Barcelona to marry her. The movie is all froth, tinsel and far-fetched but at the same time enjoyable to watch, particularly the scenes of Barcelona.

I visited that city when I was mayor and was given a royal tour. Among my many memorable recollections are eating fabulous seafood for which Barcelona is famous and seeing the structures built by its most well-known architect, Guadi, whose very distinctive style is easily identifiable. While Allen takes us on an enjoyable walking tour of that city, it is not as fantastic as the tour he took us on in his 1979 film “Manhattan.”

You can see this movie and leave both pleased and disappointed. It could have been so much more as is often the case when seeing a Woody Allen film.

HS said: Woody Allen has been making films almost as long as the Rolling Stones have been giving concerts. His first movie, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily,” came out in 1966, while the Stones’ first toured America in 1964. Since this is 2008, these cultural phenomena have had an impact on our psyches for two generations. By now, we know what to expect.

I have seen a score of Woody Allen movies, and they are almost always diverting, in different ways. (Except for “Melinda, Melinda,” which I couldn’t understand.) “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a visual feast. Unlike EIK, I have never been there, but watching this beautifully photographed film of artistic and architectural treasures was the next best thing. There was a certain negativism in the characters’ self-absorption but that’s Woody Allen.

The three women are very attractive, and Javier Bardem does not kill any of them. The plot is outlandish, but so are the plots of most operas. You go to hear the music, not to critique the unlikely scenarios. This movie is well worth seeing, but it is unlikely to win major awards, unless the Spanish Tourist Office presents Oscars on its own.