Sunday, March 27, 2011


What can be a more triumphant way of making your point than giving your enemy a taste of their own medicine? Nothing matches the satisfaction of seeing Nick Cage or Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson parrot a bad guy’s catch phrase back to them after they’ve administered a violent revenge. They put on their most gravelly voice and say something like ‘time to go’, ‘watch your head’ or ‘access denied’. A world away from Nick Cage, Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is a poised, middle-aged housewife, or as the French say, a potiche, meaning ‘trophy wife’. She’s well dressed, cooks magnificently, writes nature poetry and lives in a state of tasteful leisure. She is, however, treated with total disregard by her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who believes her to be helpless, uninteresting and without any personal ambitions. Needless to say, Suzanne, like Bruce Willis or Sly, gets to give back as good as she gets.  The result is a boisterous comedy of role-reversals, secret keeping and marital spite that charms and amuses beautifully.

Robert Pujol is a wealthy man who has gathered around him a great many desirable people. He has two attractive and stylish children of leisure, both blonde and distinctly Brady-like, a glamorous and docile wife who wafts about writing haikus amongst the roses, a young, sexually willing secretary (Karin Viard) and a number of household servants. Pujol adores his position as breadwinner and lauds over all around him with aggressive disinterest in their opinions or desires. When a strike at the factory pushes Pujol’s health to breaking point, his wife Suzanne must elicit the friendship of “communist” blue-collar sympathiser Maurice Babin (guess who? Gerard Depardieu!), a former flame and Pujol’s arch-nemesis. With Babin’s help the strike ends and Suzanne’s life as a trophy wife ends with it, as she is liberated from the household to pursue her corporate abilities at the company, providing jobs for her children and addressing her romantically busy past. Most of the laughs come from Suzanne’s attempts to hide her various romantic encounters, gradually revealing the identity of her son, and also from the confusion of secretary Nadege as she befriends Suzanne whilst hiding her affair with Pujol. Suzanne’s metamorphosis turns the factory, her family and her love life upside-down as she usurps traditional gender roles.

Suzanne is something of a woman scorned but despite some feminist undertones, this comedy is more about role swapping and spite than it is about egalitarianism. Suzanne’s motherly enthusiasm and supremely coiffed appearance make her a formidable opponent in a male workplace. Her glamour evokes the determined goodwill Reese Witherspoon showed us in Legally Blonde. Suzanne succeeds because of her kind heart and ambition, wether she adopts masculine techniques or not. One considers that her desire to punish her husband by turning him into a trophy would not be out of place on Wisteria Lane. Her wardrobe is as spectacular as that of any Stepford wife, her personal style yo-yoing somewhere between Jackie Kennedy and Her Majesty the queen, giving her a fabulously regal air that amplifies her comedic revenges. Keep your eyes peeled for her husband’s hilarious cruise wear, also.

The fast-paced witty dialogue of Potiche takes a little bit of concentration, as the film’s English subtitles whiz by often without giving us time to look at the picture between readings. The drama itself is tightly composed, and the audience are kept in the loop of the to-ing and fro-ing of each of Suzanne’s relationships. Keeping up with the film as it breezes by is easy, though the hectic pace never lets up.

Visually, Potiche is a swirling kaleidoscope of seventies imagery: grids of brightly coloured squares, turtlenecks, choreographed disco dancing and orangey-brown wallpapers. Visual effects such as split screens, game-show like cut scenes and a beautifully slapstick soundtrack amp up a sense of period decadence and antiquated chic. Suzanne’s daughter resembles one of Charlie’s Angels and her son a camp, neckerchiefed Fred from Scooby Doo. In the opening scenes, Suzanne trots along an Arcadian country lane in full make-up, a huge hairdo and designer tracksuit. She gasps repeatedly at an abundance of woodland critters worthy of classic Disney and spontaneously writes a frivolous little poem about them. The whole sequence is as unrealistic as a magazine spread; yet through it we get a sense of the performative nature of being a potiche, having to embody an ideal even when nobody is watching. This idea is cleverly reversed when Suzanne breaks into the realm of public performance in the closing scene. Potiche is brought out of the realms of strict drama again and again by superimposed motifs that lighten the comedy out of the clutches of serious drama. Catherine Deneuve as Suzanne captures the cheery feel of this picture wonderfully and Luchini as the demoted Pujol demonstrates a classic fall from grace.


As if the teenage world isn’t complicated or savage enough, recent cinema has proven no classroom scene is complete without a vampire, werewolf, psychic or witch. This time it’s Martians running for class president. Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is an alien, one of nine exceptional youngsters saved when the planet of Lorien met its demise at the hands of the hideous, bloodthirsty Mogadorians. These nine young aliens each possess unique supernatural abilities and have been smuggled to Earth by warrior bodyguards to hide amongst the humans. A gang of leather-jacketed Mogadorians have decided they want to use Earth as their next brutal playground, but first they need to find and destroy each of the nine to ensure a clear run. This grand destiny is a heavy burden for Number Four, who just wants to meet girls and go to the jet skiing. Whilst living under a false name with his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant), his dream of perpetual spring break is disrupted when he finds out numbers One, Two and Three have been killed and he is next.

Despite the sci-fi/action spin, there is no denying that I Am Number Four is a classic teen drama, which subscribes fully to the fantasy of the American High School. Number Four navigates a tangle of cheerleaders, jocks, geeks, locker room pranks and of course, all the actors are older than high school age. Even though he’s an alien, Number Four looks like a bronzed, golden-locked James Dean and quickly assumes the role of the mysterious new kid on the block. There are elements of Twilight romance present, however the depiction of a male rather than female lead have thankfully cut short all those long stares and lovers’ tiffs. High school drama is as popular as ever, with TV shows Glee and Hellcats raking in cash. However it is interesting to note how I Am Number Four removes those usual priorities of gossip and sex in favour of a more action-based approach. Although this doesn’t stop the explosive fight scene finale from taking place on the hallowed ground of the varsity gridiron field where so many other crucial high school battles are fought. “Life and death” indeed.

Perhaps there is a level to which the high school drama has lagged behind culturally. Emos, Goths and the advent of the hipster are all sub-cultural phenomena defining the last decade in the classroom, however the high school romp is still principally a jock vs. geek situation. I Am Number Four describes indie culture by portraying Number Four’s love interest (Dianna Agron) as a girl haplessly obsessed with photography but no other characteristics. I also had to giggle a little when Number Four is sprayed with red paint in a prank and reluctantly changes into skinny black jeans and a loud, baggy jumper from the lost and found: Give him a fixie and some ray bans and you’d have yourself a hipster. Some brief patriotic pride was quickly stifled by the appearance of Number Six (Teresa Palmer), who spouts tough guy one-liners in an Australian accent and skips around in leather. Also, everybody has an iPhone and the film is peppered with all of those familiar vibrations, ring tones and message alerts. I was surprised at how effective this technique is, evoking familiar sounds to pull audiences in a little deeper. What really grabbed me, however, was the presence of Number Four’s charming Spaniel who accompanies our alien heart-throb into battle and turns out to be the only character I really rooted for.

Special effects and prop design left a lot to be desired, particularly the faux-Maori symbols each alien wears and the ubiquity of blue light shooting out of everything from Number Four’s hands to a magical rock that whispers in an alien tongue. Worst of all was the way in which the aliens turned to stone and then dust and blew away in flourishing swirls when they died. The make-up of the actors playing the Mogadorians, however, was a true return to science fiction wonderment, their facial gills and pointy teeth being a truly atrocious evocation of the faces of sharks. The final fight scenes were generally boring, and somehow the scariest part of the film ended up being a very eerie dramatisation of a county fair ghost train. I’d like to see the practise of chasing fairgoers with a chain saw get past royal show OH&S in Australia.

As I type this final paragraph I am checking the time. One of the Alien films is on in fifteen minutes and I’m reminded of how odd it is that ever since the advent of ‘teen culture’ in the swing era, more and more movies are being made according to a sense of ‘age-appropriateness’. Eat, Prey, Love was for the middle-aged, It’s Complicated for empty-nesters, Twilight for the newly-invented “tween” category, and kids film are now expected to entertain parents and children simultaneously. I’m not sure how healthy a diet of age-targeted film is. Alien was just a sci-fi. Not a sci-fi for kids or a sci-fi aimed at couples on dates or any other category. It’s often very important for a child or teenager to watch adult films, and many of us fondly remember our first non-kids’ films with fondness, seeing them as important points of growth in our lives. The Alien series was that for many of my peers, whereas the rating of I Am Number Four and its content make it a film that few of any age will find engaging or original. Like a square of white bread, it’s over-processed. Unfortunately it is difficult for any film with a narrow target bracket to be considered a seminal work, a classic or an artistic triumph. I Am Number Four is a teensploitation vehicle of the most generic kind and I expect that teenagers seeing it will have none of the fondness or admiration for Number Four in their adult lives matching what I have for the genre-defining Ellen Ripley in mine.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Seeing Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s’s latest release Biutiful is akin to being a victim of the volcanic disaster at Pompeii. A slowly unfolding plot erupts over you in your seat for a protracted two and a half hours. An ash-rain of distressing events, piteous characters, bleak interiors and hints of impending doom sprinkle down over you. After a while you become resigned, almost attuned to this level of unpleasantness and become hypnotically stuck in your seat, as though that ash-rain really is covering you over. Once the film has ended, you resemble a body-cast, feeling vague and paralysed and morbid and everybody about you asks, as they did of the Pompeii eruption, ‘why did that happen? Where was the logic in that storm?’

Biutiful is a powerful, uncontrollable force consisting of over two hours of suffering and misery. It is the portrait of the many faces of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a small-time Spanish crook who is imbedded in a two-bit illegal workforce racket. He is a man with many dependents. In his squad of illegal workers are a group of twenty-five Korean factory workers including women and children, and a team of roadside salesmen from Senegal who flog pirated DVDs and fake designer handbags. Uxbal is both a paternal presence and a parasite to them. Whilst he is exploiting them for his own profits, he also builds a society with some of them and feels guilt for their poverty. Uxbal’s warped sense of social morality is further complicated by his family. His wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) is uncontrollable, an alcoholic and sufferer of bipolar, and relentlessly needy. She is an unfit mother for their young children Ana and Mateo (Hanaa Bouchaib & Guillermo Estrella), who for the greater part of the film show no signs of resourcefulness, capability or even much personality. This limping family life is more burden than comfort for Uxbal. And this is not all he is juggling! Uxbal is also overseeing the traumatic exhuming and cremating of his long-dead father, who he has already outlived and longs to know better. A further thread is weaved of Uxbal’s supernatural abilities. He sees visions that are connected with the afterlife and is able to eek a living out of his mystical abilities interpretations of  signs from the recently departed. Uxbal’s life, already muted by its complexity and difficulty is struck again and again by tragedy throughout the film, and just to get the ball rolling he is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in the opening scenes.

Unlike more harrowing films such as Schindler’s List, there is little evidence of a political motivation for this barrage of pain. The location of contemporary Barcelona functions as an enclosure, a grim setting, rather than a comment on the quality of life in any particular place. Not once is it hinted that Uxbal’s life will ever be improved or stabilised or the possibilities for his kids widened. This total lack of a silver lining means that the sensations of hope or longing or escapism aren’t ever evoked. Curiously, you get used to it. Maybe Biutiful is s study in acceptance. Uxbal’s family is not so much trapped as simply unaware of any other world. 

The presence of supernatural imagery is a crucial narrative thread in Biutiful, as it works to relieve some of the monotony, poeticising the story. The magical motifs accumulate, acting as echoes of events in Uxbal’s life, haunting him very privately. Like everything else in this underbelly of Barcelona, these spiritual connections are monetised, giving Uxbal another income. The special effects are simple and tasteful, especially in comparison to the recent ‘TV afterlife’ depicted in Hereafter. The simplicity of these effects often pales in comparison to the imagery of Uxbal’s actual life - medicinal light boxes, dark secrets washing up on the beach, the tar-like innards of a partially burnt mattress.

Biutiful is a fragmented film. Whilst it honours the tradition of cyclical plot structures in Gonzalez Inarritu’s previous films, it is a generously chronological film. Yet, even though the events happen in order, there are often gaps of unspecified length between scenes. There is an evocative level of information omitted, and one must fit together these broken pieces of narrative as the film moves along. Here Javier Bardem excels. His performance scintillates and shifts through each episode, his character growing and evolving for us. A truly changeable and formidable presence here, Bardem makes palpable Uxbal’s struggle and guilt.

Oftentimes one asks of a film, ‘what is this about?’ sometimes the answer relates to the human condition, or a current issue or idea, and sometimes the answer is simply “entertainment”. The urge to ask this question is always heightened when a film is difficult to watch or a draining experience: “why did they do that to me? For what reason was I shown all of those things?’ The answer is elusive here. It can’t be said that the difficulty of the film has a political or social agenda, nor can it be claimed its bleakness is some form of ‘shock art’ or exercise in the theatre of cruelty. Perhaps it is an artistic agenda: there is some sense of an aesthetic excursion, indeed there is a veritable rainbow of richly realised vignettes, each demonstrating an incredible sense of place and then disappearing like a burst soap-bubble. Here is another example of what my friend Liam calls ‘poverty tourism’, like that seen in The Fighter or Winter’s Bone. Though I think a more accurate term here may be poesis povera.

Here we have a piece very similar to a disastrous volcano eruption or which follows in the tradition of ‘force of nature’ poetry like that of writer Ted Hughes. It’s awful to watch but simultaneously momentous. Like a natural disaster, Biutiful is a film I feel immense respect and awe for, but couldn’t possibly anticipate or enjoy.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


It can surely be said of the science fiction genre that a wobbly plot and improbable technologies are part and parcel of its charms. I might not know how a ‘warp matrix’ or a ‘sonic screwdriver’ might work, but perhaps I don’t care, because I am taking a leap into the future where any new technology could exist. But what happens when the new technology in a sci-fi is a new type of human? A new way of considering the body? Suddenly the subject has got a lot weightier and you might find yourself craving a bit of air-conditioning duct or a flux capacitor. Never Let Me Go is a science fiction in the tradition of 1984 or Brave New World, presenting oppressive schemes and human struggle over wacky beeping control panels.

Kathy H, Tommy and Ruth (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley) are young students at a boarding school called Hailsham in a charming countryside estate in England. Their lives seem at first idyllic, reminiscent of scenes from The Secret Garden or of the Pevensey children at playtime, however it soon becomes clear theirs is not so blessed a life. A number of troubling peculiarities arise – the children have no parents, they’ve never left the school grounds or met anybody from outside, they are tagged with electronic bracelets which record their movements and each must attend classes on how the ‘real world’ works. This is no ordinary school, and it is abundantly clear the students are being styled toward some dark and pre-determined future. As they grow up their naivety diminishes and their happy schoolyard memories conflict with unanswered questions about Hailsham and their destinies. 

Like fellow literary adaptations Brideshead Revisited and Atonement, Never Let Me Go spans a number of decades during which characters age and relationships fluctuate and mature. The script therefore favours drama over location. Science fiction, however, generally requires a detailed and coherent realisation of a very particular reality. In the world presented by Never Let Me Go, technological advances in medicine have allowed for a number of breakthroughs to be made. The times of multiple sclerosis and “the big C” have been long forgotten, and this bill of national health is wrapped up strangely with the lives of our central characters. Unfortunately, this world doesn’t make a great deal of sense, having not been explained properly because it was elbowed out of the picture by romance and human interest. In turn, the drama suffers from being complicated by the ins and outs of the science fiction elements. It’s half of each yet whole of none.

Never Let Me Go is a film with a plethora of beautiful qualities. It is sensitively coloured and styled, and a great deal of attention has been paid to its very odd historical setting: an alternate 1950’s where medicinal practises surpass today’s for complexity. The film is photographed magnificently, too. Each shot is skirted by a vignette of blurriness, helping to romanticize the pastoral scenes and impersonalise the medical ones. Carey Mulligan gives a very natural performance of the jaded and heartbroken Kathy H and Andrew Garfield, whilst given little screen time, does a tidy job of what he’s given. Kiera Knightley appears as yet another headstrong, sexually-entitled waif and seems unable to alter her tone or manner enough to let us forget that she’s Kiera and concentrate on the character of Ruth. Despite this, Never Let Me Go is likely to provide a thought-provoking and deeply cathartic experience for those who find the characters more convincing than I. It is built on a foundation of ultimately fascinating ideas, and with the aid of what composers call ‘shining strings’ certainly tugs on the heartstrings.

Unfortunately, the plot is holier than a bishop eating Jarlsberg. It’s an alternate future set in the past. It’s a medically perfected society, but we are excluded from seeing any of that society. Worst of all, no character has any clear motivation. Sinister fates looming, they are submissive. Our main characters are allegedly brainwashed, yet we see no brainwashing. To reprieve, even if I don’t know the inner workings of a teleportation device whilst watching Lost In Space, I can still understand why one might exist. Never Let Me Go proposes a world where the instinct for human compassion is overridden, and those crushed by the system do not begrudge it. Like a teleporter, I don’t know how this works, but unlike a teleporter, I cannot conceive of why it exists. A syrupy epilogue further exacerbates this anomaly, preaching the human equity and sweeping all unanswered questions under the carpet.

Never Let Me Go is a film that should be really powerful. It pits youth against mortality, beauty against the abject and unpacks the nature of the human condition and the value of life. As I lay in bed ruminating over it’s many inconsistencies, I realised frustratingly that even though Never Let Me Go, didn’t always work as a story, I’d nonetheless been moved by its ideas about human-ness.


I have a theory about French film. Here it is: somewhere in another reality, a place exists that normal people can’t get to. Let’s call it Mont Croissant. It looks exactly like a French provincial town and is populated exclusively by off-duty characters from French cinema. In this town, no conflict lasts more than a few minutes, casual folksiness prevails and everything always turns out all right because here, life is simple. Residents constantly spout twee one-liners, jokes that help bring them together across the boundaries of age and gender. It’s a beautiful retreat for those beloved extra-frenchy characters to inhabit when they are not starring in Amelie or Paris Je’Taime.

Now, consider My Afternoons with Margueritte:
Germain Chazes (Gerard Depardieu) is a forty-something gentle giant who has spent his whole life being teased for his slow wits and bumbling manner. Germain is content to live out his alleged idiocy in a poky caravan in the garden of his mad and embittered mother. He grows vegetables and works as a labourer to satisfy his humble lifestyle and is in a relationship with wide-eyed beauty Annette. Spare time is spent with the blokes at the local bar (run by a wise but unlucky-in-love hostess), who make fun of him whilst pursuing young women and sipping tiny glasses of muscat. Germain is a fool, but he is happy. Then one day he encounters Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus) sitting in the park, an elderly woman of grace and generosity for whom blindness is looming. The pair form a bond as Margueritte introduces Germain to the joys of literature. Their meetings have a curative effect on Germain’s humiliations at the pub, but soon transform him even more deeply. Now Germain is slightly less of a fool, but he is happy.

Whilst director Lois Becker never says so, My Afternoons with Margueritte is set in Mont Croissant. The evidence for this is plentiful: there is little plot, the story has no weight or insight, there is no real sense of time or place and faces familiar from other loved French pieces pop up. References to the quintessentially French are made: baguettes and Camus are discussed, Depardieu even attempts a Gainsbourg-style poem-set-to-music in the credits (with grotesque results). The characters in My Afternoons with Margueritte are formulaic; we’ve seen them before in films by Jean Pierre Jeunet and ­­­­in Francophile pieces like Chocolat, only in more depth. This is because in Mont Croissant, the residents are only archetypal shadows of characters in other films. My Afternoons with Margueritte, in my mind, is a snapshot-of-life film about a town that represents the notion of French cinema as seen in the minds of English-speakers.

If nothing else, this film is about simplicity. It’s very short – this is the first 80 minute film I can ever remember seeing that wasn’t for kids. The characters are light, the staging pretty. Countless opportunities for the script to unpack darker or more complicated areas are missed, in particular Germain’s relationship with Annette and his mother complex.
Whilst admirably extolling the virtues of reading and friendship, My Afternoons with Margueritte leaves you with little more than a good mood. Its humour was the most enjoyable aspect, yet the jokes were forgettable. It’s too short to get boring and too sincere to be annoying, and most of all, too funny to warrant total disappointment. However if it were any funnier, shorter or sincere it would be insipid.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Ever since I was a child I knew that most American children couldn’t read as well as I could. I do not recollect ever being taught this, but it was somehow common knowledge that in the US, an impoverished education system and lousy testing methods meant that most of my star-spangled peers were way behind me. This, despite America’s reputation as the last of the old-world superpowers.

Waiting for Superman is the new documentary by David Guggenheim, the man behind 2001 fly-on-the-classroom-wall TV doco The First Year and An Inconvenient Truth. In Waiting for Superman Guggenheim revisits the average public schoolroom, which has received increased funding and promises of salvation under successive administrations. In particular, the monumental co-operation between liberal and conservative figures during George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” shake-up. School funding has doubled in recent years, so what are the outcomes? Are American students learning better? The answer is a clear, statistically proven ‘no’. The ability of US kids to read, write and calculate at the appropriate level hit “poor to average” in the seventies and has flatlined ever since. And as impassioned narrator Guggenheim will tell you – flatlining signals educational casualty.

The documentary reviews current educational protocol at federal, state, neighbourhood and classroom levels, and troubling practises are identified in all strata. This overview paints a portrait of probably causes of the poor performance of American students. Statistics abound, which is only natural in a documentary that would otherwise suffer the wrath of its detractors, and they provide sound protective padding. Presented via engaging illustrations, the numbers also serve to make a very complicated issue appear to have a number of simple solutions. The film is book-ended by unbelievably appropriate Superman footage, and peppered with sweet comments from schoolkids, darkly humorous bouts of irony framing the adults, and one or two “Bushisms” from ol’ George.

Expert commentary is provided from charismatic educators and innovators, in particular the charming and pleasantly verbose Geoffrey Canada, and Washington D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee, whose dedication to improving the system is so recklessly noble as to verge on professional martyrdom. As the issues identified by Guggenheim are scattered, there is no body of opposition as such, and certainly no commentary condoning current practises, which suggests everybody involved desired change. Curious also is the absence of footage discussing Obama’s approach to education. This might reflect Guggenheim’s wish to judge success only after the presidential term, or perhaps just a desire not to attach Obama’s name to a failing system.

Perhaps the most moving and effective technique employed here is the use of anecdotal evidence. Guggenheim follows five families who are excluded from the opportunity to make use of private schooling due to its expense and must instead select from the public and independent (or charter) schools. Both the kids and their guardians lend valuable insight. In particular, these five children provide proof that nobody cares about quality education more than they do. It is easy to see how a child will give up on academia when surrounded by bad teachers, dropouts, and plummeting test scores. The children may be victims, but they aren’t blind to their losses.

The various solutions discussed in Waiting for Superman are largely concerned with getting rid of problematic teachers, yet the examination of foreign systems is conspicuously absent. Top educational nations include Belgium and Norway. Australia is eighth internationally. America is in the high twenties. It didn’t even cross the minds of US legislators to adopt methods from other countries with high-functioning systems. Australian teachers are required to participate regularly in courses to promote better lessons, classroom management, discipline techniques and first aid. I was surprised that this kind of continued training was not even mentioned in Waiting for Superman. It seems Americans are as introspective as ever.

I saw this film with my mother, who is a classroom teacher at a public Western Australian metropolitan primary school. Afterwards I asked her if she could identify any similarities, or any problems that the Australian public system shared with the US. She told me there were – however, nothing as dramatic. Her major complaint was about standardised evaluation. The tests that generate statistics determining school funding, ranking or performance analysis are flawed. Most teachers who are offered incentives, performance evaluated, or have their students’ performance tested, will manage their class time to focus on test content. This prevents a well-rounded, multi-disciplinary education, and may even encourage children to memorise information rather than focus on understanding it. It was clear from our discussion that America’s problems were advanced well beyond any of Australia’s and therefore whilst union negotiation, testing and increased funding might work here, American’s flatline has proceeded well beyond the realms of anything but a drastic and ruthless solution.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Barney’s Version
Science has proven on a number of occasions that the human brain’s relationship to fiction is a fluid one. The more times somebody tells a story, the more fortified and visually descriptive it becomes. One study showed that upon retelling a story about digging a hole, most candidates will add the word ‘black’ to their version. Barney’s Version, indeed all forms of biography, are about boiling down a lifetime of information into a collection of important anecdotes. These will be the most colourful, moving or unlikely, and convert what should be just a history, into a kind of legend. The moments a person cherishes or agonises over, are the most likely to succeed them, however erroneous or flamboyant. Whilst Barney’s Version is a collection of sincere memories made grandiose by their retelling.

A biographical film, Barney’s Version is a jumbled album of the cruellest, brightest, and most romantic events in the life of one Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti). There are few constants in Barney’s tumultuous existence. One is heavy drinking (a sort of awe is to be had for him on his wedding night, when he can still flirt after a dozen shots), and one is Grumpy’s bar, a “boy’s club” retreat for Barney and his father (Dustin Hoffman’s cheeky ageing cop). In between, Barney’s life is a merry-go-round of people and places. Over forty years, Barney has two jobs, lives on two continents, has two children, marries and loses three wives, and is implicated in the murder of his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman).

The visual decadence of Barney’s Version amplifies every second of its drama. Despite the fact that Barney re-visits many of the important locations of his life, each subsequent location feels like a whole new world. There is the sense that no prop is used twice, and Barney is a wealthy man, so his possessions do not number in the few. A mix of timeless and period costuming adds to a sense of romance, and many of the outfits worn by venomous first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) and Minnie Driver’s unnamed “jewish princess” are majestically dated.

Barney’s Version would be described as a film loaded with flashbacks, if it weren’t for the fact that there is no sense of when the ‘present’ is, in which Barney reminisces. The film is a patchwork of memories threaded together by their relevance to one another, rather than chronology. Tangents become plotlines, characters appear and disappear. In the absence of superimposed text (e.g. Central Park, New York, 1990), the audience measures the timing of Barney’s memories by his age, in wrinkles and grey hairs. His ageing process is spectacularly realised. Barney and his leading lady Miriam (Rosamund Pike), are incarnated at innumerable stages of their lives, each timed aged accordingly. The difference between one scene and the next might be one crow’s foot or a whole beer gut, but at every stage of the game the makeup is seamless, so much so that it was impossible to tell during which Barney, if any, Paul Giamatti appeared without makeup. This is an elegant alternative to casting conspicuously different actors to play each age (Remember Titanic?), or simply doing a hack job on the age spots (Winona Ryder at the end of Edward Scissorhands).

The title Barney’s Version is a curious choice. It evokes a defensive position – suggesting Barney is telling the truth where others might have lied. There is no shortage of possible contentious events, however this appears to be a reference to murder case. Whilst Barney was acquitted, a retired investigating officer publishes a book damning Barney. The murder plotline weaves its way through the film as one of many, alongside romances, jobs and children, so it seems unlikely that the title refers only to the case. The word ‘Version’ may also imply some kind of American Beauty­-like self-narration, or like in last year’s Gainsbourg, reflect a warped, fantasy version of actual events. Barney’s Version is neither, rather existing as a realistic, objective range of self-contained events starring Barney. Whilst these represent Barney’s memories, they are as clear as though caught on camera (which… they were). Even though they are Barney’s memories, or in fact because they are internal memories, they in no way veil what really happened in order to exonerate or glorify Barney himself.

The beauty of Barney’s Version is that the experience of seeing it closely resembles the way memory is formed. The audience is totally immersed in each chapter as it is occurring, yet built in to each vignette are one or two memorable snippets of dialogue or visual prompts, which later come to symbolise that time in Barney’s life. In retrospect the film seems long and jam-packed, but never boring, and its conclusion is very satisfying. Paul Giamatti is spectacular, appearing as many different Barneys – each with a different level of enthusiasm, wisdom and happiness.

But wait –
With all this intriguing detail to write about, I almost forgot one very important thing: Barney’s Version is funny as hell.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Something has changed in the world of scriptwriting. Maybe there’s something in that crystalline Hollywood water, because something seems to be trending: Trajectory. If there is one thing in common about films such as The King’s Speech, Conviction and The Fighter, it is that as soon as the film starts you know where it is heading: the characters work hard, and then they succeed, happy ending. No twists, and little doubt they’ll pull it off. The Next Three Days is no different. It’s all about the journey, rather than the destination, which seems as so predictable as to have been prophesied.

Russell Crowe plays the ‘husband/dad next door’ John Brennan, a suburbanite college professor living a comfortable life with a charming son Luke (Ty Simpkins) and beautiful wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks, of 30 Rock fame). His family is successful, happy and healthy. You might say he is in a state of blissful equilibrium. This calm is disrupted with the sudden arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Lara for the bashing murder of her female boss. And yes, it does happen that rapidly: the whole trial process seems to occur during a cut. We land in the future, three years into the sentence, and John is attempting to lodge a further appeal, against overwhelming circumstantial evidence. The unlikelihood of his success is such that John’s lawyer advises he should get used to the idea that his wife, despite her innocence, will be in jail for the next seventeen years. After breaking her the news via prison telephone booth, and being painfully aware of her growing rift with son Luke, he decides he has to spring her from prison. He is committed to giving her the life he feels she deserves, at almost any cost.

What follows is a long, almost montage-like stream of vignettes depicting John’s consorts with previous jailbirds, acquisition of skills, surveillance of the prison and battle with financial issues. With the discipline and focus of a Shaw Brothers lead, John’s whole life becomes about the breakout. There are a number of dusty corners to this film that are left neglected when it comes to plot. Principal among them is Lara’s total lack of awareness of the planned breakout, and some confusing scenes wherein an attempt is made to portray the complexity of familial relationships. A lack of mediating characters also leads the character of the husband straight into saintly crusader territory, whilst the wife tends towards the ‘unhinged’. Their son is representative of the family’s future together and of temperamental childhood emotion, but is otherwise unremarkable, despite being one of the only other characters to dominate the screen.

The Next Three Days, however, is not a character study; it is a film about a pulling off an elaborate scheme. The film is satisfyingly complex when it comes to strategy, and there is an unusual mixture of tricks we know the answers to, and those that surprise. Liam Neeson’s brief turn as a crooked but wizened ex-con provides an outline of the tasks to be completed before the end of the film. This sets up tantalising opportunities for deviation, and the result is that the audience have a clear picture of when John is ‘winging it’, and whether things are going to plan. This is critical in a genre where many films leave the audience out of the loop and frustrated, trying to guess why anybody’s doing what they’re doing. Culprits include Salt, Bourne and last year’s Wild Target.

Perhaps the only major downside to The Next Three Days is that it is entirely frictionless. What I mean by this is that unlike many action or thriller films, it contains very little tension brought about by poor decision-making. Much of the palpable excitement in a chase scene is caused by the blunders made by the protagonist, or the moment when they act unexpectedly, or irrationally. Crowe’s John Brennan seems to be making sensible manoeuvres and choices all the way through this film – right down to only committing theft against those who can only be described as ‘baddies’. Despite staggering odds, at no point does it ever feel as though his very well researched plans are genuinely about to go horribly wrong.

What Paul Haggis has produced here is a highly entertaining adventure film with little tension, little character development, and scant ‘whodunit’ moments when the viewer can piece together clues to predict what might happen next. It’s not often that you ca let an escape or heist film just wash over you. This might be the most relaxing prison break I’ve seen.