“Barney’s Version” directed by Richard J. Lewis
“Unknown” directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
“The Eagle” directed by Kevin Macdonald
“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” directed by Jon Chu
We’re in the midst of a couple of weeks of new movies that are defined by flashbacks and characters haunted by memories, or the lack thereof. “The Eagle” and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” have both been out for a week, and “Barney’s Version” and “Unknown” open in Sacramento this Friday.
The best of the bunch is “Barney’s Version,” starring the excellent Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsy, a man that speaks his mind with seemingly little regard for the effect it has on those nearby. As we get to know more about him, one can’t help but wonder what events in his life have caused him to be this way and, very agreeably, the movie starts to flashback through time and tell us. This also causes us to encounter Barney’s father Izzy, played delightfully by Dustin Hoffman. Izzy is the kind of guy who says the wrong thing at a dinner party and then tries, with the best of intentions, to change the topic by complimenting the chicken, only to be told that it’s fish.
Barney’s life has been successful but awkward, with an apparent gift for the worst of bad timing. These memories clearly haunt him in the current day and contribute to his considerable melancholia.
Another character living with memories that have defined him is Channing Tatum’s Marcus Aquila in “The Eagle.” He’s the son of a famous Roman soldier who’s remembered for all the wrong reasons as the leader of a legion that disappeared without a trace in the wilds of what is now Scotland. This doesn’t fit well with his own memories of his father, leaving home in a blaze of glory, honorably serving his empire, and proudly carrying the eagle standard that was later lost along with the entire complement of men.
The story is based on the real-life mystery surrounding the disposition of Rome’s Ninth Spanish legion, which may or may not have disappeared in that area of the world. But it largely serves as a vehicle for a son’s attempt to regain his father’s honor, or rather two sons’ attempts to do so. Marcus Aquila finds an unlikely companion in British slave Esca, played by Jamie Bell, who has his own back-story of paternal hardships to overcome. The unlikely pairing provides some worthwhile perspective on war as seen by two sides of the same fight.
Meanwhile, following on from his new career as the thinking man’s unexpected action hero, as seen in “Taken” and “The A-Team,” Liam Neeson stars in “Unknown” as a man plagued more by what he can’t remember than by what he can. Dr. Martin Harris arrives in Berlin with his wife in order to attend a bio-technology conference. However, a sudden head injury compromises his memory, and by the time he finds his wife again, she’s with another guy who also claims to be Dr. Martin Harris. This, as you can imagine, is rather disconcerting. The first Dr. Harris is determined to establish both his identity and his sanity.
In far cuter flashbacks, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” the only documentary in this lineup, tells the story of the young singer’s rapid rise to fame as he and his team prepare for his biggest concert to date, at New York’s famous Madison Square Garden. For those who don’t know his background, it really is a fairly inspiring tale of a boy given his first drums as a toddler, who sang and played guitar outside a theater as a kid, and whose YouTube videos that were originally posted for the benefit of distant family members attracted the attention of a producer as well as a plethora of online fans.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the film is that, in the midst of sudden celebrity status and an entourage of staff whose wellbeing is dependent on their young charge, Bieber manages to come across primarily as a fun-loving kid who happens to be talented, not as some egotistical tiny adult or the product of a manipulative marketing team.
It may have the second best character development of the bunch, beaten only by the masterful character acting on display in “Barney’s Version,” with Giamatti and Hoffman both having fun with their respective roles. “Barney’s Version” is one of those films that leaves you wondering if the ending was more happy or sad, but should leave you fondly remembering the experience of watching it all play out.
“The Eagle” is mainstream adventure, like this year’s “Apocalypto,” “Pathfinder,” or “Gladiator”-lite. It neither expertly thrills nor overtly disappoints, and might even prompt moderate dinner conversation about Emperor Hadrian and his early take on border walls.
But “Unknown” was a letdown. At least it was for me, although to be fair I heard far more positive remarks from others at the early screening. But in my opinion it asks for far too much of a leap of faith in terms of the central character’s transformation in dealing with his trauma. It does maintain a certain level of guesswork for the audience, but this tale of lost memories also manages to be the least memorable of this week’s picks.