Thursday, March 31, 2011

Barney's Version: Life and Love in Jewish Montreal

I was surprised by this movie. Sweat, tender, soulful and expansive, the film covers the entire life of a Montreal Jew coming of age in the Seventies and Eighties, and has the texture of a novel. Giamatti gives a multifarious turn as the title character going through life and learning about love, marriage, friendship, regret, and guilt.

The film is in fact based on a novel by Mordecai Richler. Our story opens with Giamatti’s character – Barney – as a sixty-something drunk crank calling his ex wife. His ex’s husband answers the phone and Barney teases him mercilessly. Next morning, Barney’s daughter shows up to gently reprimand him since Blair – the new husband – has had a heart attack. Barney laughs at this and takes some perverse pleasure.

But the movie then quickly moves into the past – into a flashback that becomes the long sequence of Barney’s life leading up to this point – and we find that he wasn’t always a crank. As a young man living in Rome in 1974, Barney’s a serious but fun-loving writer hanging with three male artist friends and a woman whom he has gotten pregnant and promises to marry. The movie then proceeds to tell the story of this marriage, Barnie’s friends, then his next marriage (to the Montreal equivalent of a “JAP” or Jew American Princess – a JCP I suppose but that’s harder to pronounce), and finally, the marriage to the love of his life, a woman that he meets at his second wedding and proceeds to chase down over the course of his JAPPY marriage.

What I love about this movie is how right it gets its time and culture. The Eighties wedding to his second wife (played with perfect pitch by Minnie Driver) is lifted right out of photo albums I’ve got of growing up in a Jewish Midwestern home in this period. Even the tuxes have the right powdery blue and the band plays the right mix of Haava Nageela and elevator music. Barney’s family tsoris is all pitch perfect too: his father, an ex police-man, is the right type of loud, blue-collar Jew that can’t take the condescension from Barney’s wealthy, showily religious father-in-law.

Barney clearly loves his father as well (played with wonderful chutzpa by Dustin Hoffman), and as the story goes on, the movie deftly uncovers the emotions between fathers and sons (I related deeply to the scene where Barney discovers his father has died). What the film does better than anything is use the rhythms of Barney’s life to create gentle rhymes – such as when Barney’s own son goes through his angst and then caring for him as he goes senile; or when Barney realizes, at the very end of his life, what one of his young friends meant when he said he’d rather die early but spectacularly (in this scene near the end of his life, Barney has had dementia for a while, but upon hearing that his friend…whom everyone had thought had drowned in the river…had actually suffered from what looks like “injuries from a sky-diving accident,” he becomes lucid enough to realize what had actually happened all those years ago).

The movie covers a lot of time and it does so well. Occasionally it does lapse into the uncannily literary and compress what’s a lifetime of emotion into a few short scenes – for heightened metaphorical effect. That’s to be forgiven given that the ambition of the film is really to encapsulate a life, and it does so with marvelous feeling and recognition. It also captures well the progress of time and culture, and the evolution of a Midwestern Jewish enclave from transplanted tradition into a modern, integrated society.

I could not end this review if I also didn’t talk about Barney’s great love – his third wife (played by Bond villainess Rosemund Pike) – whom he courts with all irrationality. This great love of Barney’s life goes well for a while, but like all things, it does not last. Giamatti brings a marvelous comic tone to these antics, at times on the edge of hysteria or mania, but always showing his heart on his sleeve. In some ways the movie really reminds me of The World According to Garp - perhaps the title is even a bit of  Jewish homage to that much more white-bread version. As in Garp, the other characters provide humorous and doleful context and life lessons for our flawed hero. As Barney loses his memory in the end, he begins to lose as well his touch with all the things that have gone wrong, until he is left with a fantasy, the core of his love, and no grasp left on reality. This focus on memory, dementia, and regret makes this movie also a study about nostalgia and the role of memories in shaping our lives.

As I get older, I appreciate this theme of nostalgia and memory more and more. To be honest, I found this movie hard to forget, even days later. There’s nothing remarkable, really, about Barney’s life, other than that he is one of us, and he lived it. But in examining the ordinary life, Barney’s Version tells us a lot about our own. This movie has won numerous awards, and may sound like something esoteric and maybe even a little serious. But it’s really quite fun, and oddly unforgettable.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Paul: Sci-fi Comedy with Touch of Alien Bromance

That soft-peddling, post-masculine comedic brit-pack duo – Simon Pegg and Nick Frost – are at it again. After having done a send up of zombie movies ( Shaun of the Dead), police procedurals (Hot Fuzz), and the health craze (Run, Fat Boy, Run - Pegg alone), this time they take on sci-fi nerds as the duo travel to America to visit the nerd meccas of the American Southwest: San Diego’s Comicon, Nevada’s Area 51, and even Devil's Tower Monument in Wyoming.

Armed with an intimate knowledge of all the nerd greats – from Star Trek to Star Wars to the Speilbergian ourvre – Paul starts off gently ribbing you with the best inside jokes from sci-fi lore as the duo pine for Wookie-customed females, curse in Klingon, and genuflect at a black-ops Nevada mailbox for sending alien messages. (it does require being something of a nerd oneself to fully appreciate all the comedic send-ups, such as when the rag-tag group walks into a Wyoming bar while a string quartet plays a Western arrangement of the bar theme from Star Wars). This over-nerded duo gets some welcome relief when they run into an actual alien – who happens to be named Paul, after a dog (don’t ask) – as he’s trying to escape the clutches of some actual men in black (populated by Jason Bateman and supporting cast members from Saturday Night Live).

The joke here is that Paul, who looks like the pop-culture, wobbly headed alien seen on bumper stickers galore, is actually a bit of a slacker/doofus (he’s voiced by Seth Brogan). He smokes dope, goofs on the boys, and generally gets the lot of them in trouble. A better title for this conceit might be Pineapple Express to the Stars.

The trio immediately find themselves on the lamb and desperately trying to escape the clutches of various men in black, angry hillbillies, and pissed off Christians while taking up with a myopic Christine Wiig playing a sheltered Christian whose eyes are literally opened by the wacked out alien and his brit side-kicks.

The jokes here are pretty entertaining (there’s a running bit about an alien drawing with three titties that tells you everything you need to know about nerd-boy mentality), even if the script is only half worked out. My movie partner and I pretty much improved the script with a ten-minute rewrite (instead of killing the dog at the beginning, kill the father, etc.) so it’s clear that the effort here goes into the sci-fi send-ups rather than underlying story, which follows the standard bromance trajectory as the two brit buddies learn to bond with their slacker/alien friend.

In the end, the film lacks some of the real brilliant coherence of Pegg and Frost’s earlier work. Shawn of the Dead was deadpan hilarity, and Hot Fuzz gave us deliciously wacked characters. Paul has neither the consistency of tone nor character development of those two movies. Nevertheless, with the sci-fi theme, they’ve found some new territory to mine here. They’ve created a truly weird screen presence in the Rogan-mannered alien, and they come up with some genuine guffaws. Most important than anything, we really need some good laughs these days, and the boys don’t disappoint.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles: A War at the Beach

Here must have been the pitch: Cross Independence Day with Platoon. Then it seems that Black Hawk Down crashed into the plot, stranding our squad in a shower of military and sci-fi cliches. The result: Battle, Los Angeles – a rusty, humping, explosion generating film about aliens invading LA and the disgraced but loyal platoon leader who leads his grunts out from behind enemy lines (which happen to be in Santa Monica).

Unlike, say, District 9 – which similarly used sci-fi as a metaphor for present-day social issues (while for District 9 it was apartheid, Battle LA is decidedly coded around the Iraq war), this film has little concern for the alien culture or intricacies of science (‘”they’re here for our water,” says a commentator on a 24-hour news show playing in the background, and that’s all the context we get). Instead, this is a movie with video-game envy: with a plot and background less thought out than most game franchises, the film’s sole motive is to re-purpose LA as a backdrop for a war zone and send our platoon through it on a ripped-from-the-clich├ęs mission to do something or other rather incidental to the war while really trying just to survive.

Aaron Eckhart leads the platoon as the disgraced commander who’s assigned as an “observer” and only later needs to take over when everyone is half-dead and dispirited. That is to say, never mind the tentacle dragging, laser-firing, heart-misplaced, disgustingly sea-food-like aliens. This is basically an old-fashioned war move, and the Aliens are landing around the world in coordinated fashion while the military is worried about ribbing the new recruit. It doesn’t seem congruous at first, but if you just go with it, you soon accept that this is just another Saving Private Ryan or whatever test of young manhood and camaraderie that these types of films are usually about.

All of that would have been entertaining, if it weren’t that the dialogue was so poor and the Alien background so un thought out. The aliens come totally unprepared for anything but a ground assault – one is mystified how they traveled across the galaxy and convert half the Earth’s ocean into petro-fuel for their flyers, and yet have nothing more powerful than what seems like a laser-powered gatling gun to subdue the local population with. They must have some alien version of Donald Rumsfeld as their war commander.

That parallel to our own goof-ups in the Middle East is intentional of course, since this is clearly a parable more than a science fiction. The tables are turned; the rich families of Santa Monica are now the “collateral damage” of war and the Americans in Eckhart’s platoon are the heart of resistance. As in other recent movies of this theme, Los Angeles gets trashed and many great explosions occur, and the crowd I was with seemed to like it fine enough. I’m just saying that a little logic and a little smarts would have gone a long way towards making it more enjoyable for anyone who’s seen more than the Harry Potter series.

Which is to say that the movie makes its money, though it does so in a bit of a lazy fashion, drawing on the standard war-movie tropes and borrowing all its make-up and imagination from better sci-fi that have come before.

All the crashing, wheezing hurly burly of the rag-tag group of grunts and civilians making their way back from the alien beach head finally starts to gather steam once the movie enters the third act – that is, once the painful burden of exposition, stock character portraiture and painful character arch is finally dispensed with and we can focus on various ways of dispatching the aliens: shooting them down, blowing them back, plowing them over, and bombing them up. Then the movie starts to get the momentum of other great sci-fi battle thrillers (of both Terminator and Aliens type). It’s a shame it takes this long to get here, but there you are.

Watching this film, I also couldn’t help but be struck by yet another movie about worldwide calamity that chooses to limit its point of view to a few stray citizens whose everyday petty concerns seem to outweigh the monumental nature of the event, the narrative of which is delivered as mere background on random screens tuned CNN, or Fox, or Ski – depending on the studio (albeit, in this case, since they’re in the military, they do get to see some of the primary action). No one in this film seems the least impressed that we just discovered other intelligent life in the universe; let alone that they traveled the far reaches of the galaxy to consume our planet. Rather, the event is mere background for whether Private so-and-so will get over the chip on his shoulder about his commander.

I suppose it would be a bit ghoulish to draw parallels to the recent events in Japan, or the Middle East. Nevertheless, I can’t but sense in this film – as in similar non-disasters such as Cloverfield or Skyline – the influence of 24-hour news and an attempt to portray the increasingly shrinking-yet-distant emotions of a connected globe, in which daily disasters are felt keenly but way too routinely. The characters in this movie are fighting a war against an alien army in their own back yard, but they seem hardly any more interested in it its remarkable nature than they would in a talking squid presenting its argument for human annihilation on an episode of "Judge Judy." Given this lack of emotional scale, one might judge this as simply a film made of video-game interstitials. Then again, it’s equally plausible to think this film’s portrait of its young soldiers as an accurate reflection of the sanguine, unimpressable media consumers we have become. The latter may be the scariest thing about this movie, indeed.