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Journey through the past: The Secret in Their Eyes.

It’s Never Too Late

By Laura Leon

The Secret in Their Eyes

Directed by Juan José Campanella

Winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Secret in Their Eyes is a stunning tour de force from director Juan José Campanella, who deftly blends elements of mystery, thriller, romance, comedy and historical drama—even as the film does run a tad overlong. Going back and forth in time in Argentina from the early 1970s to the present, the movie ostensibly plays out like a cold case, with retired criminal investigator Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) returning to Buenos Aires after a self-imposed, decades-long exile, to try to lay to rest the questions lingering over an unsolved murder, and to make sense of a deeply felt regret and heartache. His attempt to scratch meaning into a novel leads him to his former supervisor, now a judge, Irene (Soledad Villamil), and upon their first reconnection, it’s plain that theirs was ever so slightly more than a purely professional relationship.

As Benjamin sorts through the clues left behind in the brutal, 25-year-old rape and murder of Eliana Morales, colleagues and even Eliana’s bereaved widower Ricardo (Pablo Rago) entreat him to just forget what is in the past; this is a refrain that underscores the haunting memory of personal but also societal loss. The movie’s flashback scenes resonate in part because they take place on the eve of Argentina’s descent into military dictatorship. Forgetting, or choosing what to remember as Ricardo also advises, may seem the only option to save one’s sanity. A scene in which Benjamin and Irene, whom he has finally convinced to join him in the unorthodox capture of Eliana’s murderer, discover the savage reality of Argentina’s new social order, and by extension their tenuous existence within it, is paralyzingly frightening.

But the movie is not without its share of sly humor, usually coming from the words and actions of Benjamin’s deep-thirsted coworker, Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). Usually slipping away from the office to down a few drinks at his favorite haunt, Sandoval may seem the epitome of the sad little bureaucrat, but he’s subversively funny, slipping, into a stack of documents waiting to be signed, a testament that the judge signing said papers is mentally incompetent. He’s also fiercely loyal, assisting Benjamin on an ill-advised reconnaissance of a suspect’s home, giving chase to that suspect in a crowded soccer stadium. Even in his cups, Sandoval displays a profound gift of insight many of his colleagues lack.

Much of the movie depends on our ability to buy the idea that Benjamin would keep his feelings for Irene so silent, for so long, but one of the great delicacies that Campanella and his cast convincingly tease out are the subtle class distinctions that existed in Buenos Aires. And in case viewers didn’t pick up on that, there is a marvelous scene in which a former disgraced colleague of Benjamin’s, now part of the shadow government, gleefully points out the many cultural and socioeconomical differences that separate him from the prosecutor. Despite the fact that he’s in his 60s, Darin is believable as the younger, quietly yearning Esposito, and in later years, his quest for closure has an air of romantic realism as opposed to quiet desperation. The scene in which he throws all his long-held fears aside and fully embraces the unknown is joyful and surprisingly meaningful. For all its noirish elements, The Secret in Their Eyes brilliantly evokes the power of regret to hold sway over lives, as well as the lure of memory to heal and sometimes conquer fear.

The B-Team

MacGruber

Directed by Jorma Taccone

Regular viewers of Saturday Night Live know that the show’s character-based skits are rarely not repetitive. MacGruber is of the rule: Each minutelong installment finds the titular hero (Will Forte), his faithful assistant Vicki (Kristen Wiig), and a rotating third character, sealed in a control room with a ticking time bomb; each ends, inevitably, with a massive explosion. But it’s a winning formula: The abbreviated format, and the fact that the character is based in parody, allows for the sketches to quickly become ridiculous (which is the point); the digital-video style in which the scenes are shot makes them stand out from the rest of the show, and keeps the movement sharp. Is it stupid? Yes. But in the context of SNL, it’s no stupider than Fred Armisen’s impression of Barack Obama.

All that said, MacGruber didn’t seem the most likely candidate for the first SNL-themed motion picture in a decade. (Some surely hoped there would never be another, as the majority of SNL pictures can be ranked on an Nth-worst scale.) So it’s somewhat surprising that the idea made such a smooth transition from 60-second skit to 90-minute film. It’s a just-add-vulgarity style of comedy filmmaking, but it’s done right for the most part. At the very least, thank God it wasn’t Gilly.

Written by the same team as the digital shorts (Forte, John Solomon, and director Jorma Taccone), MacGruber cobs together a tried-but-true story: A former military hero, long thought to be deceased, is brought back by his former colonel (Powers Boothe) to combat destruction-bent villain Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer, underappreciated as a comic actor) who just so happened to have murdered the hero’s bride (Maya Rudolph, in a brief and supremely odd appearance) 10 years ago. He’s teamed with a young lieutenant (Ryan Phillippe) whom he doesn’t particularly like. It’s textbook action-flick stuff, with a pantslessness streak.

It flies because, somehow, MacGruber (the character) is a compelling protagonist. His style and taste are stuck in the ’80s (one running gag has him carrying his car stereo everywhere he goes), he’s a jerk to almost everyone, he’s well-respected despite being inept—and yet you can’t help but admire his can-do spirit. He’s multifaceted in that way, kind of like Bret Michaels. You root for him to get that next “throat rip”; you want to see him come through on his promise to Von Cunth. There are shades of Ron Burgundy in MacGruber. If you properly recognize that as the enormous compliment that it is, you know what to do.

—John Brodeur

 

No Justice, No Peace

The Little Traitor

Directed by Lynn Roth

It must be tricky selling a reasoned film about an occupation and an opposing liberation movement in a country engaged in an occupation and fighting a liberation movement. Add in the hostile neighbors shooting rockets at you, and telling a politically themed story is fraught with peril. One peril would be making an overt political statement that pissed off everyone. Another trap is being so vague that you’re not sure exactly what the point is.

Lynn Roth’s The Little Traitor is based on a novel by Amos Oz, and is set in Palestine just before Israel came into existence. It falls into the latter trap.

Proffy (Ido Port) is the impatient son of Polish Jewish émigrés enduring the pains of puberty. His two interests are girls and the occupying British Army; he’s entranced by the former and despises the latter. He also is part of a trio of obnoxious boys who paint Limey-go-home messages on walls and, more interestingly, make a bomb to attack the Brits.

The action takes place over the summer before Israel’s birth, as the Brit- hating kid befriends a British soldier who catches him out after curfew—but doesn’t arrest him. Sgt. Dunlop (a thoroughly charming Alfred Molina) doesn’t change Proffy’s political views, but the kid now wants all British soldiers to die except Dunlop, who becomes a father figure much friendlier and accessible than his deeply formal real father.

Palling around with the Brits gets Proffy in trouble, however, and the fallout in the Jewish community is deftly portrayed; Theodore Bikel (nice to see him again) has a great scene as the community inquisitor.

The Little Traitor gets by on charm. It also shies away from any troubling political statement in an otherwise affecting ending.

—Shawn Stone

 

One Too Many Ogres

Shrek Forever After

Directed by Mike Mitchell

When my family saw Shrek, the experience was electrifying; the entire packed audience stood up and clapped at the finale. Shrek 2 was admirable, maintaining the arch anarchy and the flip reconstruction of treasured fairy tales. Then we had to deal with Shrek 3, a point at which most post-Huggies-wearing viewers felt like one does after one too many trips to the buffet line. But here we go again, with Shrek Forever After. And, yes, like a quadruple trip to put on said feedbag, one is left feeling bloated.

About the only novel thing in Shrek Forever After is its 3D production, which merely adds some spooky battle effects and little else. Indeed, at one point, when my youngest popped the lens of his 3D cheaters, I gave him mine and continued on without them; aside from some cloudiness, I don’t feel as if I missed out on a grand cinematic experience. The plot is an unabashed lifting of It’s a Wonderful Life, which means that the littlest ones in the audience will repeatedly wonder aloud why Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) don’t remember Shrek (Mike Myers), who has wished away his humdrum family life for a return to the days when his roar really meant something.

If anything, Shrek Forever After is designed to give Fiona a chance at whooping butt—in this case, that of the nefarious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dorhn, also credited as “head of story”), whose teensy tiny fine print helped bring Shrek to a future in which he never existed. Granted, Rumpelstiltskin is highly annoying and deserving of the dauntless Fiona’s fury, but he’s not much in the characterization department. Even Charming, from Shrek 3, had much more delightful villainy and interest, and that was just in a shake of his golden tresses. Rumpel’s henchwomen are a band of Wicked Witches of Wherever, none distinguishable from the next, which makes one wonder why the need to even credit Lake Bell, Kathy Griffin, Kristin Schaal and . . . Meredith Vieira? Only Antonio Banderas, returning as a tufted pillow of a Puss in Boots, draws what little sly humor he can, but that’s mostly through sight gags about his extreme weight. The end credits play on a variety of the earlier installments’ most memorable moments, and one can only hope that this, truly, is the final chapter. I can’t help that nagging feeling that tells me that, come July 4 or Christmas 2013, we’re in for Shrek Reloaded: Red, White and Oh So Green.

—Laura Leon


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