Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Argentina's "Secret" is Out; Belated R.I.P., Dennis Hopper; A Word on the "Lost" Finale

(The Secret in Their Eyes)

directed by Juan José Campanella
starring Soledad Villamil, Ricardo Darin, Guillermo Francella, Javier Godino, Pablo Rago

Congratulations, Foreign Film Oscar voters: you didn’t embarrass yourself this year. In fact, your choice was actually pretty good.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s not meant to be. The Academy is, after all, notoriously reliable for bypassing the edgy, innovative, and avant-garde in favor of the tried, true, and tired, and in no category (not even Best Picture) is this tendency more evident than foreign film. The result, no doubt exacerbated by the Academy’s confusing and byzantine eligibility rules, has been a number of fairly egregious omissions in past nominations, as well as some dismally undeserved laurels for mediocre films. Not so this year. Argentina’s winning entry, the richly romantic “El secreto de sus ojos” (The Secret in Their Eyes), may not have been the best foreign picture of 2009, or even the best among the year’s nominees, but its pull is undeniable.

Part murder mystery, part love story, mixed with a dollop of Argentinian political history, the film works best at the level of character rather than plot. Ironic, then, that it’s framed as a story about one man’s attempt to craft a narrative—or more precisely, to take up an unfinished one and give it a satisfactory ending. The man’s name is Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín), and as we learn at the outset, he’s an ex-prosecutor who’s spent the last two decades trying unsuccessfully not to brood over the One That Got Away. Make that the two that got away, even if he’s only willing to speak directly about the more sordid, less romantic one: the brutal rape and murder of a beautiful young girl, back in the ’70s, which he investigated and thought he’d solved—only to see his case gutted for reasons well above his pay grade. Esposito’s other, much more beguiling, OTGA is Irene (Soledad Villamil), a former colleague who was his supervisor on the case, and for whom he clearly still carries a torch. He tells Irene, now a judge, that he’s writing a book about the case, and proceeds to reopen ye olde can(s) of worms. As the film unfolds in a series of flashbacks interspersed with cuts to the present day, we slowly learn what went down twenty-five years ago and follow Esposito as he resumes his search for the truth.

Based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri and directed with panache by Juan José Campanella, “The Secret in Their Eyes” has the trappings and some of the stylistic flourishes of a crime thriller. The plotting, however, is ultimately a bit of a letdown, notwithstanding its incorporation of—and not-so-subtle commentary on—the political corruption of the era that undermined our protagonists’ quest for justice. Again, its strength lies more in its vividly drawn cast of characters, including the murdered girl’s grief-stricken husband (Pablo Rago), the menacing prime suspect (Javier Godino), and, most memorably, Esposito’s perpetually drunk but not dim-witted subordinate, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). The acerbic ripostes and odd-couple dynamic between Esposito and Sandoval are welcome comic relief from the film’s heavier themes; indeed, the movie loses some of its energy in Sandoval’s absence.

But “El secreto,” perhaps intentionally, is most effective and deeply engaging as a tale of unspoken love. While it’s perfectly obvious within about half a second that the attraction is mutual, it’s not hard to understand why Esposito and Irene choose to suppress it. That kind of protracted yearning can wear on the viewer’s patience (see, e.g., the exquisitely maddening The Remains of the Day), yet it doesn’t here. Circumstances are against them in ways that are believable and not overly contrived, though also not insurmountable; at the same time, the two are so likable—and there’s so much warmth and electricity, so subtly expressed, between them—that we root, root, root for them to prevail as a couple. Watching them, it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a movie that featured an emotionally mature love story about two emotionally mature adults. “The Secret in Their Eyes” will be manna from heaven for moviegoers jaded by Hollywood’s endless parade of paper-thin romances between boy-men and long-suffering women, sulky adolescents, sulky adolescents and vampires, and gun-wielding or gun-threatened couples on the lam. Here’s hoping Hollywood takes notice and learns something from it.



I hope this isn't going to be another summer full of celebrity deaths. First, Gary Coleman (and only a couple of months after that other '80s staple, Corey Haim); now, Dennis Hopper. All I can say about Coleman (and, for that matter, Haim) is that I hope his death erases some of the condescending pity that dogged the later part of his life and restores in full the affection that made him a household name. Death usually does that.

As for Hopper, I haven't seen as much of his work as perhaps I should. Never felt compelled to see "Easy Rider," and "Blue Velvet" is still on my Netflix queue. But there's no doubt he cut a uniquely memorable figure in Hollywood history. To quote one of my friends, and a legion of movie buffs, no one did crazy like Dennis Hopper. And his performance in "Speed" will always be one of my favorite villain turns by anyone, ever.

For a deeper appreciation of Hopper's oeuvre, read this splendidly nuanced obit by Salon's Andrew O'Hehir.

Updated 6/7/10:

And it seems that celebrity deaths really do come in three's: R.I.P. Rue McLanahan, also and forever known as Blanche. Sad to think there's only one Golden Girl left. Betty White, you take care of yourself, y'hear?


The arrival of the "Lost" series finale caused me to reflect on why I've never blogged about the show, when I've watched it for longer than "Mad Men," "Glee," "Friday Night Lights," or really any of its contemporaries, except perhaps "American Idol." Well, it's partly laziness - I'd have felt compelled to comment on and theorize about the oodles & oodles of mysteries, puzzles, and arcane references the show kept piling on, when really I had no interest in doing so. Partly, too, it was rooted in a certain ambivalence I've always had about the show: I'd get fed up with it time and again, only to find myself pulled back in without quite knowing how ("just when I thought I was out..."). As a result of this continual tug of war, I missed quite a few episodes, including nearly half of an entire season, and never bothered to catch up on what I missed. Ultimately, I just didn't think it made a difference in terms of figuring out what was going on at the macro-level...and I'd say the finale proved me right!

The reason I stayed with the show at the level I did, which is also fundamentally the reason I didn't hate (and on the whole rather liked) the series finale, is that my investment was emotional, not intellectual. It's not that the mysteries and puzzles had no allure for me - they piqued my interest for the time that they appeared on my screen, and I appreciated the cleverly opaque cultural references that were strewn here and there like Easter eggs. But what I cared about most was the characters - their back stories (as well as their front stories, side stories, etc.), their emotional and spiritual development, and their seemingly fated interconnectedness with one another. I wanted them to have learned something from their experience on "Craphole Island," and to have progressed upward as characters. I didn't want all the pain and death to be for nothing.

On that level, I got what I wanted in the finale. (Though I did feel a little cheated by the revelation about the "sideways universe" - to me, the alterna-world was far too developed, and too demonstrably superior to the characters' "real" experience, to be nothing more than a mere projection, or purgatory, or waiting-room, or whatever.)

On every other level, I think the finale was measured and found wanting. So it goes. I never spent that much energy trying to figure out what the island was All About or why certain things about the island were the way they were. But I can understand the frustration of those who did.

Alan Sepinwall pretty much sums up my feelings about the finale: emotionally satisfying, intellectually much less so.

There are worse ways to go.


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