Archive for July, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Juan Jose Campanella, who works regularly in both Argentina and the United States, crafts an engrossing blend of detective procedural, legal thriller, and romance in “The Secret in Their Eyes,” winner of the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The movie is based on Eduardo Sacheri’s (slightly) differently titled novel “The Question in Their Eyes,” and author and director collaborated on the screenplay. The adaptation embraces melodramatic flourishes even as it makes room for serious questions about the nature of justice and punishment. Jumping back and forth between 1974 and 2000, “The Secret in Their Eyes” uses its dual chronology to explore themes of longing and regret, as well as class differences and the political corruption of the right-wing elements of Peronism.

Told mostly in flashback, “The Secret in Their Eyes” begins with former court investigator Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) constructing a passage for a novel inspired by a memory that has haunted him for a quarter of a century. A young woman named Liliana Colotto is savagely raped and beaten to death in her Buenos Aires home. Esposito promises Colotto’s widower (Pablo Rago), a gracious, sensitive – and now devastated – bank employee, that he will find the murderer. Against the better judgment of Esposito’s supervisor Irene (Soledad Villamil), for whom the man carries a white-hot torch, permission is reluctantly granted to continue work on the case even after it has been frustratingly and unfairly closed.

Like Laura Hunt and Laura Palmer, the spectral presence of Liliana casts a spell on the film’s protagonist and its viewers, and Campanella exploits the ways in which expectations of coded masculinity inform and direct Esposito’s motivations and choices, especially in terms of how his forbidden love for Irene fuels his desire to track Colotto’s assailant. Despite Irene’s affection for her co-worker, she is both engaged to be married to someone else and is Esposito’s superior. Additionally, the social gulf that separates Irene and Esposito prevents him from acting on his feelings. As a result, he focuses on the crime against Liliana, because it affords him a small measure of control.

Campanella, whose American directing credits include episodes of “House M.D.,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “30 Rock,” and “Strangers with Candy,” draws on his experiences with drama and comedy, infusing “The Secret in Their Eyes” with a sense of wry, deadpan humor that tempers the grim details of the central offense. Esposito’s partner Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), a sloppy alcoholic with a knack for pulling clues together, provides comic relief and an unflagging commitment to his friend. Sandoval takes center stage during a spectacularly staged foot-chase shot as a sweeping long take at a packed football stadium. Later, the character anchors one of the movie’s most tragic encounters, a symbol of Argentineans swallowed up by a regressive political regime.

Sandoval is one of a half-dozen memorable figures in the story, and the plot’s twists and surprises, which continue to the end of the film, should ignite discussion about the scope and scale of restitution, retribution and redress, particularly in the manner of how a penalty is meted out. Cicero’s classic equation of proportionality between crime and punishment does not answer whether an eye for an eye provides an adequate measure of correction, and “The Secret in Their Eyes” just as easily calls to mind Voltaire’s note that “The punishment of criminals should serve a purpose. When a man is hanged he is useless.”

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/26/10.


Monday, July 19th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Mumblecore veterans Jay and Mark Duplass reach their widest audience to date in “Cyrus,” a queasy treatise on desperation and codependence misleadingly marketed as a goofball comedy. The movie is most certainly funny, but the laughter is tempered by the seriousness with which the writer-director siblings approach the core triangle of misfits, an awkward grouping that places a smart, beautiful woman between her genuine, earnest new suitor and her coddled adult son. “Cyrus” raises more questions about commitment, gender, parenting, and the postponement of emotional maturity than it answers, an apparently deliberate strategy which intrigues and baffles in equal measure.

Jonah Hill’s title character, a needy manchild still knotted to mother Molly’s (Marisa Tomei) apron strings, is but a whisper from Norman Bates. Cyrus’ headlining status clues the audience to his pivotal importance, even though we do not meet him until Molly has forged a sudden bond to John (John C. Reilly), a lovesick, forlorn washout still reeling from a divorce that was finalized years ago. Cute-meeting while John relieves himself in the bushes at a party, knockout Molly inexplicably pursues the self-described Shrek lookalike, initiating the first of the Duplass brothers’ movieland fantasias.

After a few dates and no invitation to see where Molly lives, John stalks his new girlfriend home and comes face to face with the unfailingly polite Cyrus, whose off-kilter demeanor hints at the deep dysfunction that will define the remainder of the story. As the first encounter between the two future rivals unfolds, Reilly and Hill unleash a lacerating duet of barely hidden masculine posturing, and the sequence in which Cyrus demonstrates his life’s work – spaced-out, beat-driven, electronic instrumentals created on synthesizers and a laptop – is a tiny masterpiece. John: “Sounds like Steve Miller. You know, that one Steve Miller song.” Cyrus: “No it doesn’t.”

The Duplasses are not the first filmmakers to embrace a loose, improvisational technique as they craft projects from the interplay of the characters on the page and the ways in which their performers realize and bring those people to life. All three of the principals make smart, canny choices, but the figures they represent have a way of blocking access to the parts of themselves that would really allow “Cyrus” to soar. At one point, when he can take no more of Cyrus’ lies and manipulations, John admonishes Molly to open her eyes, and the frustration he expresses is equally palpable for the audience, particularly because it is so difficult to see why an otherwise stable person enables the worst tendencies of her offspring.

In so many mumblecore movies, the line between pain and humor is fine, and “Cyrus” shares this trait with its lower-budgeted kin. The filmmakers and performers wholeheartedly embrace the conceit that Molly and Cyrus share a virtually incestuous relationship, but other than a few vague references to mistakes and failings in the manner Cyrus was raised by Molly, the viewer – along with John – must guess at the reasons for such overt oedipal adhesion. We know that a boy’s best friend is his mother, but the filmmakers Duplass firmly resist providing specifics.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/19/10.


Monday, July 12th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Produced by Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal, “Predators” slaps together Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” resulting in a hasty assemblage of so many genre tropes, viewers will swear they’ve already seen this somewhere. Although not without small doses of comic relief, “Predators” is bleak, grim, and serious, straining to maintain an air of cool toughness even when the saga’s B-movie origins might otherwise suggest guiding the tone in the direction of camp. Only a batty, “Apocalypse Now”-referencing cameo appearance by Laurence Fishburne keeps interest in the standard issue story from waning.

The movie opens with semi-conscious mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody) tumbling through the sky toward an alien planet. The ex-black ops ruffian opens his parachute without a second to spare, and soon meets seven other killers with equally impeccable badass credentials. An Israeli sniper (Alice Braga), a wired-up death row serial murderer (Walton Goggins), a Mexican drug cartel assassin (Danny Trejo), a hulking Russian commando (Oleg Taktarov), a mostly silent yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien), and a Sierra Leone death squad rebel (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) round out the rogues’ gallery. Topher Grace’s meek and unassuming doctor doesn’t appear to fit the profile, however, which should be the first clue that he is hiding something.

The surly fire-eaters surmise that they have been kidnapped to a kind of interstellar game reserve, and are now the quarry of a breed of gifted super-hunters. Shortly thereafter, in one of the movie’s only substantial additions to “Predator” lore, custom, and zoology, a pack of hound-like quadrupeds (with more than a passing resemblance to some of the inhabitants of Pandora in “Avatar”) descends on the humans. Once the pursuit is underway, many viewers will determine that the only real fun is guessing the order in which the characters will be dispatched. It is no spoiler to say that Adrien Brody’s character manages to hang around.

Antal reestablishes the key ingredients of the Predator mythology introduced in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger adventure, from the clever point-of-view thermal imaging to the rippling invisibility cloaking effect that hides the dreadlocked beasties from human view. Stan Winston’s original creature designs are left intact, despite variations identified as “Tracker Predator,” “Falconer Predator” and “Berzerker [sic] Predator.” Mirroring a plot point established in “Alien vs. Predator,” an uneasy quid pro quo is forged between certain representatives of each species, although the result rockets quickly toward an action-focused resolution rather than any exploration of what makes the Predators tick.

Underneath the buckets of blood, “Predators” alludes to the unsettling thought that some humans learn to enjoy preying on people. Each of the selected participants of the gory game comes to realize that her or his inclusion has been predicated on a ghoulish aptitude for mayhem, and for a fleeting moment the stock players almost engage in a contemplative exchange. The screenplay, which rarely strays from gruff recitations of the obvious, fails to explore this idea to any satisfying degree. Whenever subtext challenges action, Antal sets up another running firefight, effectively reminding us that when it comes to the Predator franchise, brawn trumps brain every time.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/12/10.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

America’s favorite skinny white girl/vampire/werewolf love triangle continues in “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” the third big screen installment of Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster publishing success. Director David Slade, who follows Catherine Hardwicke and Chris Weitz in the director’s chair, improves on the efforts of his predecessors, taking advantage of a healthy budget and the knowledge that the franchise has a rabid, ready-made following. As the series inches closer to a sexual consummation that appears to explode the underlying endorsement of abstinence, “The Twilight Saga” bears a striking resemblance to the “Harry Potter” series in its preoccupation with the liminal state of suspension between adolescence and adulthood.

Rekindling the romance of spooky sweethearts Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) after their melodramatic separation in second chapter “New Moon,” “Eclipse” devotes a significant amount of time to a plot in which vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Rachelle Lefevre) enlists dupe Riley (Xavier Samuel) to raise an army of hungry “newborns” hell bent on finding Bella. To protect Bella, the Cullen clan forms a shaky truce with Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) and his family wolf pack. Additionally, the dastardly Volturi, led by youthful-looking Jane (Dakota Fanning) descend on Forks, Washington with a plan of their own.

Young girls have expressed loyalty and preference by joining “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob” (too bad there’s not a boyfriend-free third option called “Team Bella”) but whether one favors the bloodsucker or the lycanthrope, Lautner’s Jacob surely gets to deliver the movie’s best comebacks and insults. “Eclipse” is the most self-referencing of the three “Twilight” movies to date, and the film’s refreshing sense of humor, often applied in the service of mocking/acknowledging frequently bare-chested Jacob’s shirtless state, allows viewers to simultaneously embrace and ridicule the saga’s most recognizable appurtenances.

Padded with Bella’s voiceover narration and the threat of almost constant exposition, “Eclipse” does cleverly link one flashback – featuring a cameo by Bauhaus leader and Goth icon Peter Murphy – to a tactic Bella employs to distract Victoria from destroying Edward. That the strategy involves self-cutting will reignite discussion on gender messages in “Twilight.” Until Bella becomes a vampire herself, a transformation that requires the surrender of her life and the symbolic surrender of her virginity, the central character must remain durably passive (note how often she must literally be carried around in the arms of Edward or Jacob).

The climactic moment of the love triangle unfolds in a freezing tent, when Edward consents to save Bella’s life using the only reasonable method at hand: the warm-blooded body heat of half-naked Jacob, who happily crawls into the shivering heroine’s sleeping bag to warm her while ice-cold Edward broods. A marvelous spin on the “intimate healing” trope that has been a staple of soap operas for decades, and has made variant appearances in “The Saint,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” and “Tristan & Isolde,” the scene works perfectly as an illustration of the homoerotic connection between Edward and Jacob (they have an intimate heart-to-heart while Bella sleeps through the noise of her chattering teeth) and as the distillation of the forbidden and impossible ménage a trois, soon to be banished by Bella’s “choice.”

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/5/10.