Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: The Secret in Their Eyes


If you keep going over the past, you're going to end up with a thousand pasts and no future.

At its surface, "The Secret In Their Eyes," which won Best Foreign Language Film (Argentina) at the 2010 Academy Awards, appears to be a police drama, but as the story evolves it becomes a mesmerizing film that spans two decades, with emotional intertwining themes and rich, fully developed characters.

The film begins in 1999, 25 years after the brutal rape and homicide of 23-year-old newlywed Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo) went unsolved, due mainly to a corrupt legal system. The criminal investigator, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), now retired, is still haunted by the case and the events surrounding it and, to cope, is attempting to write a novel about it.

He reunites with Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), his former supervisor on the case and with whom he was (is?) in love, to present to her his idea and notes for the novel. She is affected by the case as well, and neither has talked about it until now.

From here, the movie follows a two-themed track as it flashes back to the mid-70's and the characters involved attempting to solve the case, and flashes forward as they attempt to live in its aftermath.

For one, it's a detective story that primarily involves Hastings, Esposito and his alcoholic assistant, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), an affliction rendered even more tragic by revelations of his keen mind, along with his sense of humor and genuine affection for Esposito. For such a heavy drama, the two share some very good comedic and lighthearted moments.

The detective track also introduces us to Ricardo Morales, Liliana's grieving husband, who is played thoughtfully by Pablo Rago. He is devastated by Liliana's death, conveyed through some heartwrenching scenes, and goes to obsessive lengths to find the killer and avenge his wife.

When we are introduced to the primary suspect, Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), it is done in a breathtaking scene that takes place during a soccer game and is filmed in a fashion I've never seen before. Forget the fact that they find the guy in a jam-packed stadium, it is so uniquely shot and suspenseful that it is quite memorable.

Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin (Sony Pictures Classics)
Intertwined with the police story, the film is also a story of unspoken love between Irene and Benjamin, and how the inability to acknowledge their feelings for each other dooms them to lives they may not have been meant to live. As a result, they seem forever caught in the past, and their only future is to live with the notion of how things should have been.

What I really like about this film is how the two different tracks reflect the same themes. As the case is reopened, also reawakened are the unspoken feelings between Benjamin and Irene; as the case -- chillingly I might add -- addresses the issue of "How do you live a life full of nothing," Irene is forced to answer this question based on her life choices ... to mention just a couple.

The two tracks are also full of subtle parallels that I love: A typewriter with a missing "A" key, an "irresistible smile" that is initially unforthcoming, doors that are strategically left open or decidedly shut, photographs with eerie similarities ... each of these, and more, neatly apply to and are revisited in both the detective story and the love story at precise points.

The movie is graphic, but not gratuitously so, and at times, some plotlines are a stretch. But it's a movie, and thanks to some well-crafted scenes, including one of perceived self-sacrifice, and the actors' intricate performances set against a gorgeous soundtrack, the ride up to the film's climax is both riveting and dreamlike.

And what a thrill the climax is, as the story is peeled back layer by layer in a series of enthralling revelations, including a bone-chilling twist that is both jolting and, on a deeper level, a resounding sentiment of the perils in making the past the present and, subsequently, wiping out any chance at a future.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: That Evening Sun


"That Evening Sun" is based on William Gay's story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," and the screenplay was written by Scott Teems.

I want to get that front and center, because the writing in this movie is outstanding.

What was written? A story about Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook), an elderly Tennessee farmer who begins the movie in a nursing home, talked into staying there by his attorney son, Paul (Walton Goggins). Clearly he's miserable, and clearly he won't be staying because he walks out and begins to trek back to his farm in the steamy southern heat, before an opportunistic taxi driver takes him the rest of the way.

Upon his arrival, Meecham finds that his son has rented the farm to the Choats -- Lonzo (Ray McKinnon), Ludie (Carrie Preston) and their 16-year-old daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska).

Meecham's not pleased.

So Meecham stays.

If we couldn't tell by the start of this film, we know now that Meecham is as stubborn as they come, and he simply refuses to give up his property that he spent a lifetime building -- especially to the Choats. He squats in an old tenant shack and plans to stay until they leave or are driven out.

Holbrook is exceptionally good here. His brief Oscar-nominated performance in "Into The Wild" was vivid, raw and memorable, and he certainly has accomplished the same with this character.

Meantime, Lonzo's none too happy about the old man making himself at home on his new property. He's introduced to us as a proper redneck -- showing up in a pickup truck that barely runs, long hair and beard in full force ... a six-pack in tow. He reminds me of Dwight Yoakam's Doyle in "Sling Blade."

Some of the greatest dialogue in this movie comes when these two get to childishly jawing at each other.

Meecham: (Watching Lonzo approach him from the house) You even walk like it.
Lonzo: What's that?
Meecham: White trash -- you even walk like it (laughs to himself). It amuses me.
Lonzo: Must be great to be so funny.
Meecham: Helps pass the time.

Then ...

Meecham: How do you expect to keep a farm this size when you can't even keep the lawn mowed? You're in over your head, son.
Lonzo: Yeah, well we'll see about that ... stupid ol' coot. Hell, I'll just sit right here and outlive you, how bout that? (Takes a swig of beer). You're older than Moses anyhow, can't walk for sheeit, fallin' apart before my very eyes.

Hal Holbrook and Barry Corbin (Cooper Dunn/Dogwood Entertainment)
Clearly these guys need a voice of reason, and I found that to be in Meecham's neighbor, Thurl (Barry Corbin), who is excellent. We get some always appreciated old-man conversations between the two longtime friends, but they are interspersed with strategic glints of common sense Thurl throws at Meecham, who tends to be blind to it. Ludie also plays this part, if not moreso, having to talk sense into both Meecham and her husband, who are incapable of seeing what's coming down the road.

The fundamental problem here is that these guys are fighting over something that neither one of them can have. One thinks he can be a farmer, and the other thinks he can still be a farmer.

"That struggle gives them both purpose and also a distraction from the reality of their situation," says McKinnon.

As the movie progresses, however, a funny thing begins to happen -- we find ourselves thinking differently about these two guys than we did when we met them.

Initially, we root for the poor, helpless old man whose property was wrongfully taken away from him by the lazy, good-for-nothing, beer-swilling redneck. But curiously, we start to see that Meecham isn't all that good and Lonzo, while being terribly flawed and does some unspeakable things, is ruled by his own insecurities, anger and fear and is worthy of our sympathy.

This is subtly revealed to us in some very well-crafted scenes: An intimate talk between Lonzo and Ludie by the glow of the TV at night, and Meecham talking only to his dog -- who he adopted because it barked constantly and annoyed Lonzo -- about what put him in the nursing home and, more importantly, what made him leave.

And there's the scene where Meecham walks through his house alone again, playing an old familiar tune on the record player, reflecting on his late wife, seeing the haunting residue of pictures that once hung on the walls. We get the feeling he's not only mourning the loss of his house, but of his life overall ... getting a chilling glimpse of the way things are after we're gone and knowing that life goes on without you.

It sets the stage for a revealing conversation with his son, including:

Paul: There's nothing out there for you anymore, Dad. Things change. Life goes on. And you gotta go on with it.
Meecham: Life goes on, huh?
Paul: For those who let it.
Meecham: I'm an 80-year-old man with a bum hip and a weak heart. How much life you think I got left to go on with? I'm no fool, Paul. The road ahead ain't long and it ain't winding. It's short and straight like a goddamn poisoned arrow! But it's all I got. And I deserve to do with it as I please.

Things inevitably escalate to some pretty grim proportions, including a grisly retaliation by Lonzo, on whom Meecham called the cops because of a drunken rage against his wife and daughter. We see Lonzo's retaliation coming a mile away, but we don't anticipate Meecham's response, which is sickly hilarious.

The ending I thought to be a bit ambiguous, especially after what we see silhouetted in a raging fire that nicely turns this story on its ear. From there, the film somewhat dissolves into a series of images, while I was expecting a little more closure.

But if we let them simmer, it's in those images that we can piece together the rest of the story, and reflect on the decidedly unambiguous messages the film itself may convey.