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Enchanting European escapes at the hands of Woody Allen, BBC & Jersey Shore(!)

I could easily have gotten in a crabby mood this summer while watching everyone (who’s anyone) escape the heat of New York City while I stayed put.

But what saved me, in addition to cocktails, were all the enchanting images of Europe on the big and small screen.

I could live vicariously through the works of film directors and TV producers who have packed up casts and crew and moved to foreign locales — all for my viewing pleasure.

So what if their works weren’t exactly exploring the kinds of themes that citizens of the displaced nation care about? We’re talking escape and enchantment here, and that means pleasant scenery, surely?

Woody Allen’s postcard Paris

Take, for instance, the new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. I haven’t seen it yet but the trailer already has me in love with the idea of an escape within an escape, particularly as it involves Paris.

Woody’s hero, Gil, a disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter played by Owen Wilson, gets to escape to Paris — pretty nice even if he’s going as the guest of his pushy fiancée and her frightful parents. Especially as he gets to escape from them by traveling back in time to the sizzling city of the 1920s.

There he hobnobs with the brilliant expat crowd of that era, including on the American side, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Cole Porter, and on the European side, Picasso, Salvador Dalí and T. S. Eliot.

In the course of this time-travel adventure, Gil picks up writing advice from Papa Hemingway and even has an affair with Picasso’s fictional mistress, played by the enchanting French actress Marion Cotillard.

But let’s get back to the scenery, which, to be honest, sounds like the real star of the film — or as one film critic put it:

What an enchanting movie — almost as enchanting as its location.

And indeed, the City of Light has never looked more glorious, from the opening montage of narrow streets, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, to the vistas unfolding before Gil on his warm spring evening strolls.

Yes, it’s a mostly touristic view of the city, but that’s precisely what I’m after while living through a spell of hot, humid weather in New York City.

And speaking of New York, I’m further inspired that a kid from Brooklyn — someone who has always struck me as NOT being displaced — can abandon his hometown so completely in his twilight years. Woody Allen now seems to favor photogenic foreign locales for his films — e.g., London in Match Point and Barcelona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Rumor has it that this is because New York has become too expensive and he’s found some European investors.

But even if Allen wasn’t yearning for it, he certainly seems to have been stimulated by his change of surroundings. I for one am still chuckling over Penélope Cruz’s constant defiance to speak English in front of her ex’s (American) girlfriend in VCB. Has Allen elicited that level of comic performance in an actress since Diane Keaton in Annie Hall? I personally don’t think so, and Oscar agrees with me!

The BBC’s postcard Rome

This summer PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! carried a new crime series, Zen, produced for the BBC by Left Bank Films. The title refers to the hero, a Venetian-born Roman police detective by the name of Aurelio Zen (“Zen” is a Venetian way of shortening the surname “Zeno”).

Originally the creation of British crime writer Michael Dibdin, Zen attempts to bring justice to modern-day Italy whether the authorities — politicians, the Church, the Mafia — want it or not. (They don’t — and to make matters worse for poor Zen, his bosses, too, side with the outlaws.)

Now, Dibdin was as English as they come but he led a peripatetic life and wrote the Zen books after being an expat in Italy for four years, where he taught at a university in Perugia.

So we have him to thank for the chance to see some of Britain’s handsomest actors wearing sharp suits, talking sexy, and frolicking about in the Roman sunshine. I kept waiting for Rufus Sewell, who plays Zen, to wink at me as if to say, aren’t I lucky to be on this Roman holiday instead of making yet another London-based crime drama?

He even gets a dishy Italian girlfriend, played by the Italian actress Caterina Murino (see above clip).

As New York Times TV critic Gina Bellefonte observes,

The [Zen] films deploy a light comic sensibility and graphics that suggest a ‘60s caper. They situate us in a Rome where the weather always seems heavenly, blouses are always unbuttoned suggestively, and no lunch transpires without multiple courses and repeated instances of sexual innuendo. Risotto is eaten; cigarettes are smoked; espresso is consumed; public displays of lust are evident. There is little resistance to cliché in all this, but the cliché is so visually appealing that you’ll feel like a spoiled child if you complain.

Not to worry, Gina, I’m not complaining! A 1960s caper is exactly the kind of enchantment I’ve been so desperately seeking this summer.

Jersey Shore’s postcard Florence

Okay, I know I’m stretching the picture-perfect postcard idea here, but the fact is that MTV’s hit reality series — about eight housemates who spend their summers in a summer share on the Jersey shore — has opened its fourth season in Florence, Italy. It premiered on August 4.

And that’s a lot more enchanting than Seaside Heights, NJ, or Miami (where Season 2 took place) — I say that having never been to Seaside Heights or Miami, but still…

Ostensibly, Snooki, Vinny, and the rest are in Florence to find their Italian roots.

They certainly aren’t there to meet the natives, try the food, or tour the Uffizi or the Duomo. As New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley has it:

The road signs point to Florence but they should read “Welcome to the Jersey Shoro.” … Even in Florence, the producers are determined not to let anything under the Tuscan sun melt the parochial insularity of “Jersey Shore.”

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t enjoy the setting, does it? Call me a snobbo, but watching Snooki, Sammi, Deena and Jenni negotiate the cobblestone streets of Florence in their six-inch leopard skin stilettos makes me appreciate the city’s quaint beauty even more.

And MTV has already announced that in the fifth season, the gang (many of the whom in fact hail from Staten Island or other outer NYC boroughs) will return to Seaside Heights. So for now, viva Italia — that’s what I say!

QUESTION: Can you recommend any more TV series or films that can serve as eye candy for the travel-starved this summer?

YouTube clips: Midnight in Paris trailer 2011, by MoviePediaTrailers; Rufus Sewell — Zen — Vendetta (2011) — Drinks, PrairieGirl1000; and Jersey shore season 4 sneak peek, by TheAdam419.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a reprise of our popular post about seven deadly dishes — apparently, we didn’t kill enough of you off the first time around! 🙂

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