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The Secret In Their Eyes

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Director Juan José Campanella won the Foreign Film Oscar last year with The Secret In Their Eyes, and deservedly so.

Ricardo Darin (David Ginola meets Joe Mantegna) is an autumn-years ex-police officer who is whiling away his retirement on an elusive (and apparently roman a clef) novel. He heads back to his old headquarters and stirs latent passions: for an ex-colleague (Soledad Villamil) he allowed to slip through his fingers and for the case he has yet to reconcile – that of a raped and murdered young woman.

The case itself was solved (and the entrapment scene is a gloriously goading sequence of unspoken hand-tipping and manipulation) but the circumstances that followed torment Darin: the murderer was released early and brought into police ranks, a move made entirely out of dire spite by a former internal adversary. Darin was powerless to act and the injustice, coupled with a brief grief-addled empathy for the widower left behind, who ended up keeping a fruitless vigil in train terminals, waiting to chance upon the perpetrator, has caught up with him: too many fates are, from Darin’s perspective, still hanging. His late re-intervention ties them all together, if hardly entirely satisfactorily.

The performances are immense. Darin is iconic, a totem of urbane affability wrestling with demons, wearied but as yet unspoiled. Soledad Villamil is a lambent, intoxicating presence, perfectly matching Darin’s barely concealed sense of almost playful preposterousness at their and the world’s lot. Guillermo Francella, before this a TV comedy actor in Argentina, is quite brilliant as Darin’s doomed and debauched comrade.

There is one extended set-piece at a football match that deserves a mention and which can only be described as spectacular: a heart-thudding, free-roaming camera that glides over a raucous terrace throng before dropping amongst the voluble masses adjacent to our man and his drunken sidekick. A delightful visual step-over later and what appeared a start-stop missed opportunity (plot-wise) suddenly and urgently emerges as an unlikely triumph as the restless camera sleuths and lingers beside our missed miscreant, waiting for Darin to take the hint (which he doesn’t immediately, adding to the scene’s pulsating, innovative brilliance) and begin the resultant pounding chase through the crowds and in and out of the stadium innards before we head into floodlit glare and onto the pitch itself. Staggering.

The Secret In Their Eyes is a mature, elegant, unashamedly emotive film of great, soaring substance. It’s knowingly, pointedly cinematic – like Bertolluci, say – and it has a lustre of instant greatness about it. It’s stubbornly romantic and effortlessly gets away with a happy ending, which directly follows a macabre and exceedingly disturbing resolution to the crime strand of the tale. In a sense, the film kills you with a devastating headscratcher of a final movement to the irreconcilable element before nailing you with a delightful, resplendent final reel and the epitome of a bittersweet end. Oh and the film even makes great, repeated use of an office door, on top of everything else.*

*There were two copies of this film slotted inconspicuously underneath at least a billion something-or-other at the local DVD store. The box had upon it a large blue sticker, covering part of the film’s title, incidentally, which read: ‘SUBTITLES’. When I took it to the counter, I was given a second opportunity to heed this dire warning. ‘You do know that, er, this is a subtitled film?’ The young man wearing a ‘Blockbuster’ t-shirt stared at me with cold, hard foreboding. He clunked the disc into place and snapped the box shut with seeming regret: I was not to be saved.

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The Kids Are Alright

February 16, 2011 2 comments

Lisa Cholodenko seems to be where Noah Baumbach was before he hit a bit of a curmudgeonly crisis. Namely: able to render a cinematic environment you’d be more than happy to live in, with people who are messed-up in extremely appealing, interesting ways (but who believe themselves to be emotionally mangled when really they’re suffering a bit of a blip, soon to be negotiated).

Mind you, trying to evoke pleasant suburban doldrums is surely that much easier when you’re using the kind of locations and visual synonyms Cholodenko favours here: honey-hued orchards, spacious, sun-draped and greenery-swamped houses, commotion-free eateries enjoying early evening warmth. The pace is curbed to meander level, the better for the protagonists to bask in their clement surroundings. You sense that a drama must unfold, if only to stir the pulse.

And it does: lesbian couple Annette Bening and Julianne Moore have it pretty good, ostensibly. They have nice kids, a seemingly happy home, and a heavy suggestion of affluent ease, so bring on the misery already. They’re all of them likeable; Bening seems a little square, Moore a little too freewheeling, and the kids are suitably enamoured with them and well-adjusted.

Enter sperm-donor Mark Ruffalo, the unlikely and unwitting emissary of their soon-to-be temporary meltdown. The kids’ curiosity puts them in touch with his carefree, lethargically philandering restaurateur and things go awkwardly well, for a while. Cue easily forecast relationship ruptures and embattled strife, and a relatively happy finale.

Ruffalo is on top form here, in a role that can’t be that much of a stretch. So are Moore and, in particular, Bening, whose performance is a reminder of all the films that, sadly, she hasn’t been in for seemingly eons. The kids, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, are disarmingly good, and Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg’s script cleverly assumes authenticity by feeding them believably tentative dialogue, particularly during exchanges with newcomer dad Ruffalo.

The Kids Are Alright is a compelling, funny comedy drama that deals with potentially uncomfortable plot developments convincingly enough and without recourse to glib extrapolations. It may at times strain credulity and likelihood to near snapping-point but contains enough empathetically drawn and believably screwed-up characters to elude your resentment or provoke your disinterest.

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The King’s Speech

February 14, 2011 2 comments

Triumph over adversity > royalty/nation imperilled > sibling rivalry > domineering father casts large shadow > gradual erosion of class-based divide > period drama trimmings > singsong revelations of horrendous childhood > cruel mother > review almost pointless.

This film has covered all the bases, using precise mathematical formula, and you cannot escape its Mobius emotional properties. No matter how cynical you are, you will enjoy The King’s Speech.

The film is extremely and respectably entertaining, that being the dead-eyed aim here above and beyond all else. Tom Hooper adopts a tone of quiet pomp throughout: gently rousing, immediate-magnitude mid-paced zooms provoke time-honoured, tightly-constructed responses. They are stirringly employed, in particular, when the speech in question gradually hits stride. And, as with Hooper’s previous The Damned United, a tumultuous bromance unfolds amidst the lavish sets and fusty recreations: likeably and amusingly in a gainsaying manner which is all about dissolving Firth’s layers of entitled unease. Geoffrey Rush, in a brilliant performance, by far the best of the film, is an apposite foil to Firth, but can’t quite help acting him off the screen in even the more innocuous, quieter moments. Rush, you are reminded, is surely the greatest tics-and-gestures actor around now: he does things physically that speak as eloquently of his character as any perfectly-timed intonation.

Firth, who really need only turn up for an ‘evens’ Oscar shout, offers an admirably shouty and stuttery effort. For me he was perfectly suited to the George Falconer role in A Single Man and put in his best, most unusually vulnerable work there – and here he’s very good indeed but it’s the same very good indeed he seems to roll out at a whim, virtually indistinct each time. He conjures easy empathy by being himself; he is haughty and quickly and volubly incensed throughout and yet he is impossible to take against – he has an unimpeachable presence. You can’t, then, argue with the casting. Helena Bonham-Carter, so often an entirely respectable yet bloodless presence in many a film, is strangely likeable here, even warm. Everyone is. They’ve got Timothy Spall in to make Churchill likeable as opposed to doughty and indubitably fierce. They’ve even got Jennifer Ehle in for a Pride and Prejudice-related audience nudge-sigh moment.

The story: Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) has a crippling speech defect that makes public addresses humiliating. He’s botching the closing speech at the Wembley Empire Exhibition as the film gets underway. He attempts to redress the issue by seeking out some speech therapy and ultimately, via the happy work of Duchess of York Helena Bonham-Carter, meets Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who he initially rebuffs in a fit of misguided pique: he is soon hauled in front of the microphone again by dad, King George V (Michael Gambon), for part of the royal Christmas broadcast and isn’t too happy about it: what follows is a predictably miserable, embarrassing charade. His father isn’t having any of this blather about stammers and makes matters worse by hammering his intolerant disappointment home. A dispirited Firth slips the copy of his own Shakespeare ‘To be, or not to be’ rendition onto the turntable, the hitherto forgotten ‘gift’ that Rush oversaw immediately prior to the initial parting of their ways, and the stammer-less result has him occasioning a swift and contrite return to his abandoned mentor.

Meanwhile, the King eventually succumbs to well-documented madness and it’s brother The Prince Of Wales’ (Guy Pearce, still running on a ‘four great scenes, one stinker’ ratio) turn to run the empire and hopefully live long, but he’s having none of it: he’s in love with a commoner and far from in love with terrifying responsibility so would rather pass the whole King thing up. And there’s a war taking shape: ghastly Hitler is marshalling the troops for a crack at the world title and will soon be dropping bombs on London. So the new monarch doesn’t even have time for a second terrible scene before he’s away with Wallis, and our querulous hero must ready himself for the biggest job of all as King George VI. Well, it was then.

The film races towards the moment of truth, as Rush coaches Firth through his damp-browed address to the nation, and surely many are disappointed at such a proficient job. He gets the message across to the millions huddled beside their radios, slumped in smoky bars and nervously congregated in factories, his delivery suffering only the merest flaw as we share in odd elation at a personal triumph and the sure news that The nation is at war!And, as usual, the very best work is being done by those out of the limelight.

PS it’ll be interesting to see what director Tom Hooper next helms: he seems to make only films about the buddyish accord between a capricious man in a position of vulnerable power and a resourceful and pleasant sidekick keeping the former on the rails.

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Winter’s Bone

February 10, 2011 3 comments

Winter’s Bone is a parched, dusty, scuffed film in possession of a certain raw intensity that the recent True Grit could’ve done with a fraction of, and if you want to be led through a menacing, barren, unforgiving hinterland by an old-beyond-her-years young hero, this is a much better bet.

Jennifer Lawrence strikes a perfect balance between vulnerable and obstinate as she sets out in search of her no-good father, who’d better turn up, one way or another, or the family house goes. Mother is a barely present dead-eyed casualty so eldest daughter Lawrence runs the show in loco parentis, whilst dad stacks up the debt and ill-feeling on his drunken travails. She meets an array of blighted, poker-faced characters on her initial foray and draws a firm and signposted belligerent nothing, other than warnings and verbal prods to go back from whence she came. As the reality of the situation becomes apparently worse she is pressed into risking the manifestation of dire heedings to get a gist of paternal whereabouts and narrowly avoids something very grim (as opposed to the fair old pasting she has clearly endured) in a garage at the hands of local backwoods thugs, marginally dragged from the jaws of community law by uncle (John Hawkes, a perfect, post-regret, emaciated-grizzly fit here).

Thereafter uncle and niece form what might have been an unlikely alliance as she recuperates, and a handy, grisly and unforeseeable solution arrives through the murk.

Director Debra Granik washes everything in sun-dulled, frosty metallic hues and uses plenty of detached, wide-angle coverage, which adds to disquiet; as though the director doesn’t want to look but feels distantly obliged.

Garret Dillahunt, who seems to be the go-to guy if spurs, murder and dust are involved, is a seemingly vital ingredient in such enterprises as this, and is as indispensable as ever, even in such a sliver of a role as the dubitable sheriff; Hawkes is excellent also. But Jennifer Lawrence will struggle to again find a role to which she is so apposite. She’s the immanent, stoic heart of the film, binding all the elements with bruised equanimity and frayed grace.

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Blue Valentine

February 4, 2011 8 comments

Blue Valentine is exceedingly grim fare, so much so that you have to admire the fact that it ever got made. I don’t mean grim in A Serbian Film manner; but this is 500 Days Of Summer minus any of the fun (though it’s a vastly superior piece of work).

It follows, in non-linear fashion, the birth and death of a relationship, with a crucial and doomed last-gasp visit to a theme-hotel holding centre-stage. Crucial because the central players (Michelle Williams, unhappily accepting of their inexorable plight; Ryan Gosling, adamantly denying of obvious finality) use this bridge between the chronologically shuffled start/stop scene assemblages to flex their respective downbeat muscles. Gosling is restlessly beseeching and exacerbates irreconcilable differences (and is extremely affecting) whilst Williams is a disappointed and stubbornly regretful realist. She will eventually cut the cord and he will cling to it, and so it goes.

In between the beginning and end, then, we have aforementioned and unbeknownst not-so-fond farewell at a cheesy hotel replete with rotating bed and oppressive cocktail-bar hues. They get drunk and play their song, which no longer means what it did; it’s now loaded with melancholic certainty. Their final evening ends in separate rooms post-argument, and continues disastrously once Williams is called back into an early-shift the next day, Gosling soon following, indignant and inebriated.

The performances are often a question of Gosling prompting a response from an often imperceptibly wooed/all-too-obviously wearied Williams, and the results are subtly excellent. Revelations and other inter-relationships are guilefully brought into play and sympathies are toyed with, but both actors render their roles substantial and believable throughout and make the film definitively about the complex mechanics of a relationship you care about.

Director Derek Cianfrance wisely keeps out of the way and lets the mutual intensity prevail uncluttered. It’s a sound, sure-footed effort and, during the hotel sequences, in which a terminally-ill relationship reaches its quiet demise in blue-tinged funereality, he manages to hint at an elegantly bruised Wong Kar-Wai / John Cassavettes fusion.

It’s difficult to know or measure how much the groundwork affected the finished film (Gosling and Williams lived together for a month, shared housework etc, in what seems like a fairly zealous ‘method’ move) but there is an undeniable poignant something between the two leads that slowly crackles at both ends of the relationship continuum, and Blue Valentine is a bleakly impressive work of serious merit.

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Black Swan

February 3, 2011 2 comments

Black Swan should bag the lot at the forthcoming Oscars. This means, of course, that it will probably win nothing. It’s too dark and disturbing; it has too many surreal, hallucinatory conceits; it flaunts the ‘triumph over adversity’ line and yet mockingly adheres to it in spectacularly fantastical, horrific, epically bittersweet fashion.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a too-intense member of a ballet ensemble desperate to land the upcoming ‘Swan Lake’ lead role; current, soon-to-be-disposed incumbent Winona Ryder (who later scowls expertly as a ruined husk) is the mascara-streaked, capitulating ‘princess’; Mila Kunis the effortless, primed rival. (Or are they? Yes, it’s that kind of film.) Nina, with mysterious, thriving cuts hinting at a quickly-emerging inner-turmoil, wins the part despite vocal misgivings from head-honcho and mentor Vincent Cassel (more perfect casting: likeable, charismatically harsh Gucci-lizard-commander-in-chief nailed with ease), who doubts that she has the Dionysiac elements within to believably embody the requisite dark-half of the role, and plans to sexually initiate her anyway, just in case.

Cassel (who at times feels like Walken doing the Twin Peaks giant) eventually suggests: ‘A bit of homework for you. Go home and play with yourself.’ She seems fairly impressed when she does as instructed, but is sprung from imminent-ecstasy by the unbeknownst proximity of her sleeping, over-surveilling mother (a gloriously dead-eyed, buck-toothed Barbara Hershey), slumped bedside. Suggestions of warped, contemporised fairytales are unavoidable. 

As Nina grows into the role, she grows apart from her mother and invites the necessary flux with which to inhabit the Black Swan. Mila Kunis, as a freer, more chaotic, lasciviously feline presence seems amused and fascinated by Portman’s frigid immutability and is witting catalyst to Nina’s imminent metamorphic lurch into sapphic awakening: cue a not-particularly fraught night on the dancefloor, and Nina is soon approaching pulse-red status as fully-fledged askew siren, abandoning herself to a sweaty bout of hedonism which in turn instigates a rapid maturity and lays the groundwork for an insanely spectacular stab at hitherto out-of-reach heights. She’s soon back at home and offering back-chat to mortified mother, the cracks widen and we soon veer off into a heady, erotically-charged, hallucinatory netherworld where reality meshes with speculative phantoms and the old Nina succumbs amidst surreal, lurid hysteria.

Natalie Portman offers more a commitment of tormented vulnerability than a performance: she is a vortex of emotional vacillation that canny directors employ to fulfil a certain ‘feel’ of fragile beauty, damaged elegance, a doomed waif figure with a hint of masochism. Put her in a film and lend it a certain aspect, instantaneously imbue it with contradictory, troubling potencies. As such she’s a peculiar, unique actress, not unlike Carey Mulligan, and she’s the epitome of perfect casting here. Barbara Hershey offers a suitably disturbing counterpoint as the controlling, ghoulish mother, a menacing influence wrestling with barely subdued, ruinous ambition for her voided daughter and a seething drive, which is clearly beyond the coax of rehearsed domestic smiles, towards mutual oblivion.

Aronofsky manages to evoke the slow dread that Kubrick and Polanski have oft expertly employed. The visual leitmotifs are starkly overplayed, perhaps, but the flipside argument could read: such consistently glaring asymmetry plays into the otherworldly Grimm-Tales feel of the piece. This is an alternate reality of often terrifying, warped verisimilitude. A surreal, clankingly over-daring visual mis-step or two doesn’t over-detract. The sound editing is also rigorously unsettling, offering as it does a restless prompting, every scratch, murmur and wince is amplified and joltingly emphatic, augmenting the film’s nightmare logic whereby all is potentially dangerous and unpredictable.

Black Swan has you recalling, amongst others, De Palma, Argento’s Suspiria, Orphee and The Red Shoes and is a fascinating riff on the idea of ambition and its accompanying paranoia, the allure of danger, the hell of safety and domestic stasis, vicarious living, all of that. That fame and success can be deathly is hardly any revelation, but Black Swan is an exceptional example of inexorable-peril cinema, offers up a wonderfully realised vision of resplendent but unmistakable hell, and is a rapturous, soaring, mesmerising nightmare, easily the director’s best effort to date.

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