Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film Review #227: The Secret in Their Eyes
Director: Juan José Campanella
Cast: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Francella

Thanks to starring in this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, Ricardo Darín, one of Argentina’s most successful and well-regarded actors, may finally get the attention here that he deserves. Only a handful of his films have been available in the US. Notably he played the lead in Fabián Bielinsky’s only two films before that Argentine’s director’s untimely death in 2006 – as the double-crossing master crook Marcos in Nine Queens (2000), a deeply pleasurable whiplash of a tale about a scam involving counterfeit stamps whose images provide the film’s title; and then as the amateur taxidermist from the city, Esteban, out of his depth in more ways than one in the remote countryside, whose epilepsy provides the title for The Aura (2005). In 2001, Darín also starred in Juan José Campanella’s comedy, The Son of the Bride. The first two are available at Netflix and the Campanella is slated for US DVD release, also thanks to this year’s Oscars.

In Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes/ El secreto de sus ojos, Darín rejoins that writer-director and heads a fine ensemble cast as Benjamin Espósito, both a retired police investigator trying to make sense, in the year 2000, of the Morales case, a vicious rape and murder that occurred almost a quarter century before, and in flashback as Espósito’s younger self in 1974 Argentina as the nation descended into what would become its Right-wing “dirty war.” Darín is now in his 60s, but has the sort of face and carriage that make him easily believable as the younger man with darker hair and a full beard, in the flashback sequences. The same is true of the excellently matched lead actress, Soledad Villamil, who plays the aristocratic Irene Menéndez-Hastings, both as a young Cornell-educated lawyer who joins the prosecutor’s office as a law clerk and supervises Espósito, and as the older, successful judge whom Espósito contacts again in the new century.

The film’s ensemble is rounded out with these principals: famed Argentine stage comic Guillermo Francella, making a rare foray on-screen as Pablo Sandoval, Espósito’s prodigiously alcoholic and fiercely loyal investigative partner; Pablo Rago as Ricardo Morales, the mild-mannered bank clerk whose only passion was his young wife; Javier Godino as Isidoro Gómez, soccer enthusiast, useful petty henchman and the murderer; and José Luis Gioia as the corrupt Inspector Báez.

Cold case procedurals that uncover the marriage between thuggish domestic or private-sector behavior and Right-wing politics have abounded recently – Britain’s Red Riding Trilogy, Sweden’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, France’s Une Prophete, and of course The White Ribbon from Austria’s Michael Haneke. The last two of these competed with The Secret in Their Eyes for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and played recently at Manlius Art Cinema, where the Campanella film opened last Friday for a two-week run. Despite some of Haneke’s earlier accomplishments, The White Ribbon fell short for me and I thought there were some serious problems with its editing, particularly in one scene that even had me wondering if Manlius might’ve had a damaged print. But Une Prophete was way better than I anticipated, so Secret had a lot to live up to for me.

What all these films have in common in their use of a particular genre type as scaffold is, first, a mastery of the elements of that type that raise these films beyond good pulp entertainment – it should come as no surprise that Campanella has directed a bunch of US television dramas, including 17 episodes over the past decade of Law and Order – and second, a treatment of character that radically shifts them out of the plot-driven mode to something else. This is why one properly starts with a look at the cast of characters in The Secret in Their Eyes rather than the working out of the plot twists – while there’s a real doozy at the end too, as breath-stopping for the audience as it clearly is for Espósito – and how come it matters what particular traits the actors possess.

Not that Campanella doesn’t give us an elegantly, deftly handled plot. As book reviewer Maureen Corrigan reminds us so well about really good mysteries, their working out is really about thinking – thinking is all its both-brained glory that weds logic and intuition. And the method here is immersion followed by the sudden insight – the “research,” if you will, is qualitative, asking what the evidence will give up, rather than proceeding from a preconceived abstraction that one sets out to prove. This is vastly enjoyable to partake of an audience member.

It also merges with the aesthetic working out of stories – thus does Esposito, in his retirement, return to this case as a novel he means to write, imagining his way to the answers. And in flashback, thus does Espósito discover his suspect from a string of reappearances in old photos and Sandoval alight upon Gómez’s passion for soccer and thus the place to find him. (Last Friday Manlius Art Cinema’s Nat Tobin remarked, “I still don’t know how they filmed the chase in the soccer stadium,” something he shares with more than one fan of the film.) Thus Sandoval’s sudden insight that the assassins who kill him don’t know what Espósito looks like – Espósito figures out what must have happened 24 years later himself, illuminating one puzzling detail about the murder scene. Thus does Irene sadly call Espósito a “dummy” when he fails to see what he feels for her she has always returned. This is why they need to say so little in the final scene.

And like the other cold case procedurals above, Secret has a strong feminist strain. When Gómez resists Esposito’s interrogation, it’s Irene who breaks him down, playing on his outsized machismo and resentful entitlement. This is a fairly extreme scene, shocking to Espósito and perhaps to us, but lays the groundwork for how a character like Irene has the savvy to survive the “dirty war” above and beyond the protection of her wealthy family (it’s likely her father was an American who’s married into an old Argentine family, and she sends Espósito to a distant province – once Gomez is on the loose again and a danger to him – where she says her cousins rule “like feudal lords.”). Their nemesis, Inspector Báez, the one who releases the convicted Gómez because he makes a good thug and informer, understands he can’t touch her.

All of this unspools from the discovery of the body in the Morales case and the long moments that Espósito takes this in, because of the kind of man he proves to be and the affront to the very core of his being that this crime is – not because the director “aestheticized violence” by the artful arrangement of the body, as some have claimed – a scene of mournful taking-in that is echoed near the film’s end by Esposito’s visit to Morales’ on the ex-banker clerk’s distant farm.

The Secret in Their Eyes runs through next Thursday, June 3rd, at Manlius Art Cinema. Re-printed here from the Syracuse City Eagle web version, published on 5/27/2010 at - click A&E.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Film Review #226: The Messenger
2009/DVD 2010
Director: Oren Moverman
Cast: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton

“I’m not gonna be giving any hugs,” Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) assures Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), in a tight, careful voice. Sent home from Iraq after a combat injury, Montgomery lands in Fort Dix, New Jersey, where the Army finds something for him to do in the last few months of his hitch. Stone, an older career soldier and veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, has been briefing him on proper deportment with the “N.O.K.” – next-of-kin – during a Casualty Notification call. There’s a manual that covers every eventuality in excruciating detail, which Stone goes through with the younger man over diner coffee, demanding twice that Montgomery look him in the eye when he answers.

Always tethered to beepers, Montgomery and Stone are racing to beat CNN and FOX News and Face Book to survivors. They speak only with designated next-of-kin – never to neighbors or mistresses – and can, if asked, relate how a soldier died and call someone for the next-of-kin if needed. When they cross one wide yard in a tract of military bungalows and a line of silent women press against a chain-link fence watching them, knowing what two officers in dress uniforms means, you start to wait for the IED to explode and begin to see that is what happens for families who get this visit.

Stone is completely earnest about doing his duty correctly here, not because he likes the power of rank, but because this is the way he can serve. Stone is an alcoholic shakily on the wagon – later he and Montgomery share an epic binge during which each stands up for the other, recreating in a lakeside brawl and a drunken invasion of a decorous wedding reception the battlefield solidarity each feels he has so fallen short of – and beneath Harrelson’s big-lug exterior you can see both Stone’s fastidiousness and his decency. Casting Harrelson in this role was audacious, and he picked up a slew of nominations and awards last winter for his performance.

Ben Foster first hit my radar in the 2007 re-make of 3:10 to Yuma, playing the jittery, primping outlaw Charlie Prince, almost feral in his closeness to thoughtless savagery, in thrall of Russell Crowe’s outlaw Ben Wade and of a type as capable of turning on Wade as say, Robert Ford did on Jesse James or Jack McCall on Wild Bill Hickok. Foster has some of that same riveting, tightly-wound quality as Will Montgomery, enough to generate an attentiveness in us that’s mirrored in Montgomery’s own hyper-alertness and, here, a deceptive calm. He is all watchfulness, this soldier, and fittingly his injury endangered his vision (the film opens with him putting drops in his eye and inspecting his eye socket, scarred with a delicate crescent, in a mirror).

Montgomery has seen things he can’t talk about and done things he’s ashamed of, his old girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) is marrying someone else, and he doesn’t feel much like the hero the newspapers make him out to be. Kelly visits him on base and it emerges that she came to retract the invitation she ill-advisedly mailed him to her wedding. She also takes this opportunity to sleep with him one last time. Somehow, because she’s on top, you understand this was her idea, and that he’s letting her, just as he lets her spin him a tale of how she came to leave him and tells her it’s alright. And it is alright too, even a relief, because in this small part, Malone conveys that the vapid, pretty Kelly would never be equal to what Montgomery will need now.

That would be a grown up, and on one of his notification calls with Stone, Montgomery meets Olivia Pitterson (the great Samantha Morton), whose first response is regret for how hard this duty must be on the men who brought her the news. She has a nine-year-old biracial son, Matt, and when Montgomery comes back, she lets him stay for pizza. Olivia has a watchfulness that matches Montgomery’s as they inch toward one another. And as it happens, he does give hugs: one day in a tiny convenience store run by the next dead soldier’s parents, to Stone’s incredulous dismay. When the elderly father vomits and collapses, Montgomery crouches on the floor next to the couple and gathers them in his arms, completing his script in a low voice.

There are six vignettes of notification in this film around which Montgomery and Stone form a friendship and Montgomery and Olivia tentatively start a relationship. Former Israeli paratrooper Oren Moverman has spent a couple decades learning screenwriting and that shows here; he is also directing his first feature-length film. He shepherds remarkable performances from Foster, Harrelson and Morton, as well as vivid cameos from Malone and also from Steve Buscemi as one angry father. (Both Foster and Buscemi are working on one of Moverman’s new film projects, titled Rampart.) The Messenger was shot over 28 days in May 2008 in half a dozen New Jersey towns around Fort Dix, and premiered at the Sundance Festival in January 2009. It opened theatrically in November, just in time for a couple Oscar nominations. While it’s remained on a few screens ever since – at most, 36 one week nationwide – it never did hit Central New York. Of course we are already fighting the terrorists here, and I don’t mean in Times Square.

Posted for the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 5/18 at – click A&E. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column that appears in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Film Review #225: Disgrace
2008/VD 2010
Director: Steve Jacobs
Cast: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Antoinette Engel, Eriq Ebouaney

Serious area film buffs may be noticing a curious lull about now – for years now, end-of-April-beginning-of-May has been spring film festival season in Central New York. It still is downstate, where TriBeca’s been running full blast. West of here, the re-named Rochester 360/365 festival opens next Wednesday with James Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination (2009), the first Merchant Ivory Productions film made without the late Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005. Ivory will be on hand for that, which is doubly significant for the region because the George Eastman House has just acquired the Merchant-Ivory film archive.

But this year, the Syracuse International Film festival makes a move to mid-October for its main events, though SYRFILM has been busy with monthly special screenings at the Palace in Eastwood since mid-winter, has hosted several visiting filmmakers and just completed its annual round of public pre-screenings of festival entries.

Word was, there’d be another kind of run-up over the summer to this year’s SYRFILM. Actor John Malkovich is expected to arrive here in August to shoot Hotel Syracuse with Israeli director Haim Bouzaglou. Set in the venerable old downtown landmark, which also houses SYRFILM’s offices and has been a sometime festival screening venue, this film is a project put together by SYRFILM’s Owen Shapiro. It would be the second film collaboration with Bouzaglou, whose already-completed, Syracuse-made Session will opens this year’s festival in the fall. Final green light on the Malkovich project still awaits the signing of the lead actress, so far a carefully guarded secret.

Meanwhile, another Malkovich film released this week on DVD. Disgrace has had scant upstate screen time except for four showings earlier this spring at Cornell Cinema. This 2008 film brings South African J. M. Coetzee’s Booker prize-winning 1999 novel of the same name to the screen, the first feature-length film by Australia-based husband and wife team Steve Jacobs and Anna-Maria Monticelli. Disgrace is a difficult and unsettling film, but Malkovich’s daring performance as David Lurie has been widely and I think correctly praised as worth the price of admission; it was certainly worth the drive to Ithaca. Whether or not SYRFILM eventually arranges a local screening once Malkovich is here, you don’t have to wait.

As David Lurie, Malkovich plays a Cape Town professor of Romantic poetry who loses his job after his student, Melanie Issacs (Antoinette Engel), reports his unwanted attentions after first attempting suicide and her boyfriend and then her father confront him. US reviewers tend to call Melanie Issacs simply a “mixed-race student,” though I suspect to a South African audience – the film has been shown in 17 countries so far, but notably not yet there – this status might be more complicated. One of the early scenes suggests this, as Lurie is hauled resentfully before a panel of colleagues who will make a recommendation. He is completely uncooperative and unrepentant. This scene astutely presents a good many things – the dynamics of male faculty who bend over to help Lurie keep his post, the women who don’t, and Lurie’s obstinate refusal to play by the commonly understood script, which sets up his later act of penance and perhaps the comeuppance that provokes that – but it also lays out in some detail what comprises, in that setting of international crossroads, a jury of one’s “peers.” That is, given the names and hues of the panel, one of wider variety and background than we may be accustomed to imagining in South Africa.

US reviewers also customarily call Lurie a “university professor” when really he’s teaching at a somewhat lowlier “technical college” in a department that’s now, we are to understand, downgraded from “Literature” to “Communications.” His colleagues are worried for him that losing this job – “in these times,” as one murmurs – will make his precarious situation worse. So David Lurie has come to rest on a rather shabby rung of the ladder and, despite his pretensions, he knows it, which sharpens both his disappointment and the fact that he is not a likable man. Once fired, he toys with an idea he’s had for a while – one he dangled before Melanie Isaacs to impress her – that he’ll write that opera about Romantic poet Lord Byron’s sojourn in Italy.

Professor Lurie’s fall from academic grace occupies a good half of the film, after which he repairs to the rural farm of his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines, in a stunning performance), on the eastern Cape. Lucy had settled there with another woman with the idea of homesteading, raises flowers and vegetables for the local marketplace, and now that her partner has left her, has sold part of her land to Petrus (the excellent Eriq Ebouaney, Patrice Lumumba in Raoul Peck’s 2000 film about the martyred African politician).

Petrus works relentlessly and noisily – a fact that pokes some droll fun at David’s disturbed contemplation – building his own cinderblock home, acquiring a new wife, planting a garden, and acting as the benign patriarch of an apparently large extended family. This clan includes a “troubled” boy named Pollux (Buyami Duma) who, with two other teenagers, rapes Lucy, sets David on fire and shoots Lucy’s guard dogs. It is Petrus who ultimately brokers a solution to this situation.

Both the novel and the film (quite faithful though the film rearranges events to change the ending) play a bit with the likelihood that many in teh audience want to see Disgrace primarily as David and Lucy’s story – whites who have not yet found their footing or their bearings in the roiling post-apartheid South Africa. Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr notes that these Europeans are themselves much like “stray dogs.” David volunteers at a veterinary clinic in town and assists in putting down stray dogs – even one lame pup he takes a shine to – and Petrus introduces himself to David, “I look after the dogs and water the garden. The dog man – yes.”

But really this is a tale with, if not a parallel track, a shadow image – a tale of two aggrieved fathers, two violated daughters, two acts of what seem – at least to David – like attempted suicide, two initial refusals to repent, despite the one being tricked out as cultured and the other as what some European characters first see as savage.

Appeared in the April 29, 2010 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Disgrace” is available on DVD already from Netflix.