| *** Barney’s Version
Paul Giamatti plays a schmuck looking back on his sorry life in Barney’s Version, a film of the last novel by Canadian writer Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). That sorry life includes three beautiful wives, two great kids and a successful career as the producer of Canada’s longest-running soap opera, so as you might already suspect, Barney’s narration may be somewhat unreliable. Did he kill his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), a golden boy whose literary talent was eclipsed by drug abuse? That’s what a detective’s new book says, and its publication provokes Barney to tell us his own version of what happened.
His story begins in Rome, where he is exporting olive oil while living la vie bohème with a group of artists and writers, among whom he finds his first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), whom he believes to be a shiksa goddess but turns out to be a closeted Jew. His second wife (Minnie Driver) is the opposite extreme, a JAP (or is it JCP?) who lives to shop, and it’s at their wedding that he meets the woman of his dreams (Rosamund Pike), whom he immediately schemes to marry. Yes, Barney is a scoundrel, and when he ditches the reception to follow his dream girl onto a train wouldn’t you know it she’s reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog, who resembles our antihero not a little.
You may be wondering how a guy who looks like Paul Giamatti could snag three beautiful women, but a man with the self-deprecation to name his company Totally Unnecessary Productions might be putting himself down in other ways too. Perhaps he is not as ugly as he thinks he is, or Boogie so golden, or his rival Blair (Bruce Greenwood) so perfect, but it’s difficult to convey an unreliable narrator when you’re looking at Giamatti’s mug. But you also get the underrated Speedman and Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s irascible father, a very dirty old man. Just about every esteemed Canadian filmmaker has a cameo — Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg as Barney’s directors, Denys Arcand as a maitre d’, and Duddy Kravitz director Ted Kotcheff as a train conductor. And throughout there’s Richler’s cruelly funny voice. “Oh Barney, you really do wear your heart on your sleeve,” says Clara. “Now put it away, it’s making me sick.”
| ** The Eagle
What Katy Perry is to music, Channing Tatum is to the cinema — a simulacrum of a star, a six-pack in search of a movie. But acting cannot be Auto-Tuned, and in the absence of a strong directorial hand this ex-model who so often plays soldiers can do little but scowl and try on accents. This time the soldier is Marcus Flavius Aquila (start giggling now), son of the commander of Rome’s Ninth Legion, whose defeat in Caledonia 20 years earlier was memorably depicted in last year’s Centurion. Determined to restore his family’s good name, Marcus journeys beyond Hadrian’s Wall with his Briton slave Esca (Jamie Bell) to recover the bronze eagle the legion lost in defeat.
The first half, all setup, is amateurishly executed, with usually reliable actors like Donald Sutherland and Denis O’Hare struggling with stilted dialogue by Jeremy Brock, who previously dumbed-down Brideshead Revisited. (The Hollywood practice of Romans having British accents and slaves being American has been reversed to make the point that Americans are the new imperialists, but no one has told Tatum.) Once Marcus and Esca cross enemy lines into what is now Scotland their roles reverse, and the movie almost becomes a ripping yarn when they encounter the Seal People, whose mohawked warriors paint their faces with mud. The unlikely casting of Tahar Rahim of A Prophet as their prince seems intended to drive home the filmmakers’ allusions to present-day conflicts, but then the Seal People are shown to be such savages that they deserve what’s coming to them.
The Eagle tries hard to disguise its origins as a ‘50s children’s book with quick-cut violence (mostly implied), a small-scale production and handheld camera that scream indie, and the desaturated palette currently expected of B-action movies, but it ends up being neither for kids nor for adults. Only Mark Strong survives, as a Roman deserter who’s gone native and thus gets the big speech decrying those awful imperialists.
| *1/2 Sanctum
Equally muddled in its choice of target audience is Sanctum, an Australian cave-diving adventure produced by James Cameron, which is ostensibly about an estranged teenager (Rhys Wakefield) reconnecting with his famous father (Richard Roxburgh) while being trapped in an underwater cave system in Papua New Guinea. The broad performances, particularly in the early scenes in which young Josh meets up with his father’s financier (Ioan Gruffudd), would be well-suited to the Disney Channel, the storytelling has been oversimplified to a first-grader’s comprehension level, and the dialogue is laughably bad. (The screenplay was written by the film’s dive coordinator and the underwater explorer who produces Cameron’s IMAX films, based on an incident in the latter’s career.) Salty language and a scene of serious gore have earned the film an R rating, and yet when the financier’s girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) contracts hypothermia after refusing to wear a wet suit (have these folks never seen a Raquel Welch picture?) she is only stripped down to her underwear.
But Sanctum is really a showcase for the Cameron/Pace Fusion 3-D Camera System, and at times it plays like a demo reel: the activities at the base camp are shown in long, arcing pans, a neat trick that ignores the nausea induced by the rapidly shifting focus. Other times his technology simply fails, as in the final pull-back from the coastline in which the verticals abruptly shift, or when an object, like the Apple logo on the back of a laptop, is too close to the audience for visual comfort. And while Cameron’s 3-D is markedly superior to the retrofitted 3-D that merely puts objects on separate planes, there’s a nagging pointlessness about his obsession — if you’re not going to send bats flying out at the audience, why bother?