POSTED ON FEBRUARY 16, 2011:
Dark Ages, Difficult Times
The Eagle never soars and Barney's Version tries a little too hard
Call me crass but my inherent fascination with Dark Ages, sword-and-sandal, hack-and-slash testosterone-drenched historical/fantasy films mainly rests in their predilection for buxomly proportioned, naked women and brutal amounts of well photographed, high quality violence. Blame Conan the Barbarian, but I know I'm not alone on this one.
And though the lack of these things is not necessarily the problem with The Eagle, they certainly couldn't have hurt. In fact, The Eagle is frustrating on a few levels since it's really not bad enough to hold a grudge against yet not special enough to really rise to the level of predecessors that are either genre brethren, Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, say, or more directly related films, such as Neil Marshall's recent Centurion, which also covers aspects of the lost Roman Ninth Legion in much more gripping terms and requisite gore.
In 117 A.D. the borders of the Roman Empire, and thus the known world, ended in the middle of Britain and the border wall, Hadrian's Wall, one of the more dangerous places to work since the imperial wave has crested and Pictish insurgents engage the Romans with guerilla warfare to increasing success. To remedy this, a Roman Governor dispatches his most hardcore team of badasses, the Ninth Legion, to crush the Picts and tighten Roman control over what would become Scotland. They are never heard from again.
Twenty years later, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), comes to command Hadrian's Wall. His father had led the legendry Ninth and it is rumored that the Ninth's eagle standard, a golden bird they bear in battle, was captured by a Pict tribe after his father failed to protect it, possibly due to cowardice. The shadow of his father's end haunts Marcus and his new troops balk at the bad luck his command is sure to bring.
But Marcus proves a wise commander and a brave warrior, so much so he is almost killed in a near suicidal attempt to rescue hostages from the Picts. Convalescing far from the battlefield in the care of his uncle, Aquila (an oddly cast Donald Sutherland), and with an honorable discharge, the life of a respected veteran eats at Marcus, exacerbating his desire to restore his father's honor. After saving a Brit slave named Esca from death (Jamie Bell -- who swears allegiance to Marcus despite the hated empire), Marcus embarks on mission to recover the eagle standard and redeem his father's name.
Wing Thing. Director Kevin McDonald’s tone for The Eagle might be its biggest problem. The film feels like it wants to be a character study of a basically good man operating within an inhumane system, while also being a sinewy adventure yarn and the balance never feels quite right.
Director Kevin McDonald's tone for The Eagle might be its biggest problem. The film feels like it wants to be a character study of a basically good man operating within an inhumane system (imperial aggression and slavery), while also being a sinewy adventure yarn and the balance never feels quite right. For its every strength there is a weakness. Sometimes the scope feels small and a little cheap, while still often looking lovely (the location photography in Scotland and Hungary is atmospheric as hell, at times); or how often the shots fall between well-composed, nicely blocked, longer takes and annoying, shaky-cam incomprehensibility during the sparse and practically bloodless battle scenes. McDonald's pacing is drastically uneven, yet somehow the film never bored (in this regard The Eagle trumps Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, at least). The way it utilizes Esca's and Marcus' slave/master relationship and the questions it suggests about the nature of loyalty and friendship are interesting but never convincingly satisfy and are ultimately usurped by an ending that weirdly suggests a cheesy, Broman sequel. It's hard to know what to make of the whole of this deeply middle-of-the-road flick.
That extends to the casting, with Tatum sometimes seeming at home in the role of Marcus only to just as often lose his way in understatement and the abundance of clunky dialogue that he can't make work. It's not just him -- though Bell, at least, is decent as Esca.
As much as I like Donald Sutherland, his casting doesn't help the immersion factor. He's not phoning it in, but at the same time his presence undermines the sense of authenticity the film is trying to generate. Same goes for Mark Strong, who is a solid actor and does good work here as a sort of Roman ronin, but whose East Coast cadence reminded me of Harvey Keitel's role as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ. This sort of thing happens all the time. Sean Connery as a Russian in The Hunt for Red October isn't particularly convincing either, but that film has a grip on its story and tone that The Eagle only grasps at.
It's not overtly bad and it's not convincingly good. It's not dull but it's not particularly exciting. The Eagle is that most frustrating of films; one that generates no strong feelings at all, but somehow doesn't feel like a waste of time. Boobs and blood really would have helped.
For a film that was in development for over a decade, Barney's Version represents another form of near hit filmmaking. Adapted from the last novel by famed Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler ("The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz"), adapted here by Michael Konyves, and starring a cast of fine actors, Barney's Version has some things going for it on paper. Heavyweights like Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Greenwood and Rosamund Pike can't possibly hurt a film and, despite my unfamiliarity with Richler, the clearly self-referential story he wrote recalled John Irving's fictional biographical style and affinity for writing fully-fleshed characters imbued with the affable flaws of real people, perhaps those in the author's own life. In other words, good.
Yet, somehow, Barney's Version marginalizes these advantages.
Giamatti plays the titular Barney Panofsky, a writer who started out as an expat Canadian Jewish starving artist in Rome and who eventually becomes wealthy after going to work for a production studio that cranks out a cheesy, long running soap opera. The film employs the reliably overused flashback template as we meet Barney near the end of his life, wallowing in the regret of his lost love, Miriam (Pike) who is now married to another man, Blair (Greenwood), while he's being harangued by a book-writing detective (The Full Monty's Mark Addy) who has penned a hit piece accusing Barney of the murder of his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman) decades earlier. True to form, we jump on the time machine to find out what went down.
Heavy and Heady. Barney’s Version aims for faux-biographical drama mixed with wry humor, and it actually somewhat achieves a certain amount of gravity for both once the film hits its stride, though that has more to do with the performances than the directorial execution or the sometimes ersatz scripting.
Turns out, the mean-spirited Barney we met used to be a gregarious, irascible but likeable idealist who became disillusioned by his shiftless best friend, Boogie's, wasted potential and the suicide of his first wife, Clara (Rachelle Leferve). He goes to work for his uncle in the TV business and, of course, the next order of business is to find him a nice Jewish girl and get married. Said girl, only known as The Second Mrs. P (Minnie Driver), is clearly wrong for Barney. She likes him because he's not a dweeb but she's a horror and her snooty, blue blood parents clearly hoped for better. The clash of familial cultures is made abundantly clear after a dinner where they meet Barney's father, Izzy (Hoffman), an achingly good-hearted, retired cop with no internal editor for his perspective on life or his sordidly hilarious tales.
On the night of his wedding to Mrs. P the Second, Barney meets Miriam and immediately falls in love. That crazy kid.
Barney's Version aims for faux-biographical drama mixed with wry humor, and it actually somewhat achieves a certain amount of gravity for both once the film hits its stride, though that has more to do with the performances than the directorial execution or the sometimes ersatz scripting. They're not terrible by any means, but the pacing is off for much of the first half of the film which is a problem since the 135-minute runtime starts to drag just enough to dull what could have been a more compelling story, even once it pulls itself together. It wants to be sprawling, which is fine, and it's trying to highlight the fact that Barney's version of reality might not be the ultimate truth, but the lack of focus in its scope makes it feel ironically narrow, while the merely adequate direction dilutes the overall emotional punch. By the time we arrive at Barney's lament, it is moving, but it should have been heartbreaking.
The cast provides most of that punch. Giamatti is typically Giamatti, which is to say he's in the role, sometimes wonderfully. He's a favorite because he's a throwback to the great'70s character actors -- that unlikely looking, everyman who has a screen presence you can't take your eyes off of.
Rosamund Pike is damn near ethereal as Miriam, while Minnie Driver plays Mrs. P Numero Dos with as little subtlety as is written into her character (again the writing, which often paints people in caricature that's up to the actors to convincingly pull off). Scott Speedman is surprisingly effective, while Bruce Greenwood is cool enough to make me not hate his character, Blair, a vegan, ex-hippie who is just too goddamn nice.
Hoffman is great as Izzy, a role he could probably do in his sleep but which he seems as invested in breathing life into as any I've seen him play. It's closer to an extended cameo than anything else, but the way he captures Izzy was as Supporting Actor Oscar-worthy as William Hurt's seven-nominated-minutes in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence.
Speaking of cameo casting, Cronenberg appears here along with fellow Canadian directors Atom Egoyan (Chloe); Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) and Richard J. Lewis (this movie), perhaps in a nod to Richler's self-referential tendencies, a nod that fits in with a certain sense of presumptuousness that Barney's Version sometimes exudes.
It's not a bad movie, often funny, engaging and loaded with fine performances, but Barney's Version is an example of a flick that's trying too hard to impress while suffering from structural flaws that deny it the prestige it clearly expected to create.
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