REVIEW: Secret in Their Eyes

21 11 2015

Remaking a movie from another language requires more than just translating the dialogue. When done right, a complex series of subtle changes must take place to transplant the story across cultures.

Secret in Their Eyes,” a remake of the 2009 Argentinian film of the same (sans definite article), moves an intriguing thriller from 1970s Buenos Aires to 2000s Los Angeles. Naturally, that country’s “Dirty War” of state terrorism, which provides the setting for the original film, must be changed as America has no such equivalent. The closest equivalent that writer/director Billy Ray finds? Post-9/11 terrorism.


Juan José Campanella’s film dealt with tragedies that his country was still reluctant to acknowledge. Billy Ray milks the nation’s public anguish of this millennia for lazy dramatic stakes. Drawing parallels between the two changes the very nature of the story from a politically-tinged thriller to something that amounts to little more than a feature-length episode of a serialized crime drama.

Not even the talented cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts can elevate the material back to the level of its Oscar-winning source. Ray’s script, which cuts between a murder in 2002 and its continuing aftermath in 2015, intertwines its threads to such clunky effect that “Secret in Their Eyes” never has a chance to gain any momentum. He favors big, explosive moments from his actors as opposed to giving them rich, internal characters to work with on the page.

We know from films like “12 Years a Slave” that Ejiofor is capable of communicating so much with just his eyes, yet his tortured protagonist Ray from “Secret in Their Eyes” never gets the chance to draw us into his pain. He’s a counterterrorism agent with a crush on one colleague, Nicole Kidman’s Claire, and a friendly working relationship with another, Julia Roberts’ Jess. When a routine check on a body turns out to be Jess’ daughter, the boundaries between protecting the country and pursuing justice get rather murky.

The occasional ethical question about the merits of retribution gets raised here and there, but it’s usually forgone for yet another opportunity to watch Roberts hysterically contort her face. C+2stars

REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

20 11 2015

Much like the “Harry Potter” series, the final installment of “The Hunger Games” departs radically from the formula of all entries that came prior. “Mockingjay – Part 2” does not actually feature the Hunger Games themselves, the main event that involves children killing children to placate the masses of a dystopian future. Without this intense action set piece to which the story can build, everything else cannot help but feel like a bit of a letdown.

“Mockingjay,” for many fans of the series, represented the least of Suzanne Collins’ books. So, in a sense, it is not terribly surprising that “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” ends on a similarly underwhelming note. But even that is unlikely to put a damper on what will surely be one of the highest grossing films of the year; the four-year relationship Jennifer Lawrence built between viewers and her Katniss Everdeen is truly remarkable.

Without the games, “Mockingjay – Part 2” seems rather confused as to what kind of movie it wants to be. Some aspects of political semantic games and propaganda messaging remain from Part 1, primarily at the outset. These leftovers just further serve to reinforce the sense that a two-part finale was an unnecessary protraction of events.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 19, 2015)

19 11 2015

Jack Goes BoatingAs I watched the climax of “The Hunger Games” series, my mind drifted away from the action on screen thanks to the presence of a fairly blatantly digitized Philip Seymour Hoffman. The resemblance was uncanny, sure, but everything about his facial expressions and mannerisms were wrong.

These pixels, as directed by someone behind a computer, went for obvious. Hoffman never went for what was expected. He always mined the ugliest parts of the soul and dredged up compellingly raw responses.

It’s a pity that he only got one chance to step behind the camera because it really showed a more sensitive, tender side than we ever saw from him. “Jack Goes Boating,” the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a film of simplicity. Yet in the absence of complication comes a rushing of heart in this wonderfully touching love story.

Hoffman stars as Jack, a socially awkward but good-natured limousine driver. He’s not necessarily looking for romance, but his co-worker Clyde (John Ortiz) tries to set him up with someone. That person is Amy Ryan’s Connie, a similarly sweet woman who stands as her own greatest obstacle. (Meanwhile, little does Clyde know that trying to facilitate one relationship will put the one with his wife under duress.)

Don’t expect fireworks or cinematic bravura from “Jack Goes Boating,” but anticipate feeling unexpectedly moved as these two battered souls make their best attempt at love. Hoffman and Ryan are wholly affecting as they struggle to overcome their own personalities to make the impression and connection they so desire. It’s a real shame we did not get to see more of this vulnerable, lovable and embraceable Philip Seymour Hoffman in his all too brief lifetime.

REVIEW: Brooklyn

18 11 2015

BrooklynSincerity has gone out of style in the world of adult filmmaking, perhaps as a sort of defense mechanism against the ever encroaching threat of extinction. (That’s just speculation on my part, though.) So it always feels refreshing when a film like “Brooklyn,” triumphant in its emotionality and lack of irony, manages to break through the cracks. The film’s combination of a pure heart and gorgeous craftsmanship produces an experience that lifts the soul.

Director John Crowley takes an unabashedly classical approach to telling the story of Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, an Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s. “Brooklyn” may look and feel like a film made in that time period, but it never falls back on retrograde worldviews or attitudes. Screenwriter Nick Hornby simply takes Colm Tóibín’s novel and allows it to soar as a tender tale of a young woman finding her voice and her home – two things with obvious relevance today.

Eilis leaves behind her widowed mother and unmarried older sister in small town Ireland not out of any great desire to start a new life. In fact, the arrangements for her to live and work in the heavily Irish concentrated Brooklyn get made almost entirely by others. Faced with the choice between an unsatisfying present and an uncertain future, Eilis lets her family nudge her towards taking the fork in the road.

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17 11 2015

It’s easy to think the most impressive cinematic achievements are the ones that transport us to new worlds of an artist’s creation. (Case in point: “Star Wars.”) But there is something to be said for those films that can take the familiar and make it feel new and radically different. I speak not of freshly presenting plot points but rather an entire way of seeing, and Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” achieves such a feat.

The film assumes the perspective of five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as he gains self-awareness of his place in the world. Problem is, that world is extremely socially constructed by his mother, Brie Larson’s “Ma.” She, assumed disappeared and dead, is held captive inside a shed by a vile man who eventually impregnates her. Rather than explain their dire situation to Jack, Ma decides to teach him that their room is the entirety of the world.

The tiny space, instead of feeling claustrophobic, seems limitless when filtered through a childlike curiosity and innocence. As he begins to make sense of the world around him, it inspires us to think deeply about the small assumptions make about our surroundings on a daily basis.

Emma Donoghue adapted “Room” from her own novel of the same name, and it is told by Jack in the first person. For over 300 pages, the depth and breadth of his observational eye forges quite the bond between reader and character over time. In a way, it almost does not feel fair to expect a movie to match that scope in just two short hours. Abrahamson and Donoghue do a wonderful job translating the story to the screen, though something may feel lost – or at least somewhat less substantial – to those who know the book.

Even so, everyone should expect to be bowled over by stunning performances from Tremblay and Larson. The way each struggles to assert the primacy of their own needs while caring for the other proves compelling and often gut-wrenching. This is particularly true for Larson’s Ma, who has no choice but to wrestle with the darkest of her feelings and impulse in captivity. After five years of such intensive, performative positivity, living an untruth takes its toll. “Room” celebrates when her selflessness wins out but never judges her for needing some personal space – a tricky balance beautifully managed by all involved. B+3stars


16 11 2015

TruthHere’s something that generally serves as harbinger for an undeveloped movie: if a movie has to say its title multiple times to continually telegraph its themes. Bonus points if said theme is also the film’s title.

Truth” is obsessed with, well, the truth and asking questions as it pertains to journalistic inquiry. James Vanderbilt’s film follows a “60 Minutes” squad led by Cate Blanchett’s Mary Mapes as they dig deeper into then-President George W. Bush’s dubious military record. Their investigation appears to uncover preferential treatment that kept him out of Vietnam.

However, that finding comes under intense scrutiny after a document’s authenticity cannot be proven. The fallout ultimately claims the position of longtime CBS evening news anchor Dan Rather, played unconvincingly by the great Robert Redford. Needless to say, this is pretty much a nightmare for the newsroom, yet somehow writer/director Vanderbilt tries to spin some shades of gray from it.

The argument, so it seems, is that Bush somehow deserved to be caught and that Mapes had every right to question him without airtight facts. I can only assume he wagers that the world would be better had Bush not been re-elected, journalistic ethics be damned. He has an “All the President’s Men”-level faith in the power of reporters to bring down a president with none of the respect for the rigorous procedures that allow them to speak truth to power.

What could have been a cautionary tale about confirmation bias – the interpretation of information to suit the narrative in one’s head – essentially just tries to turn Mapes into some kind of martyr. Blanchett does her best to sell this angle, mixing and matching elements from her performances in “Blue Jasmine” and “Notes on a Scandal” to make it work. But even she cannot transcend the victimization complex that plagues her character on the page, so the net result of “Truth” ends up being negative for the fourth estate. B-2stars

REVIEW: Spectre

15 11 2015

Sam Mendes made a great Bond film with writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade in “Skyfall” because they embraced a tricky opposition between the past and the future.  Could the unabashedly old-fashioned spy James Bond survive in a more gritty, grey world without sacrificing his core identity? They found that the answer was yes by striking a balance between these two forces vying for the soul of 007.

The band gets back together for “Spectre” (plus an additional writer in Jez Butterworth, architect of many a frustrating script in the past two years) and finds themselves preoccupied by the same kind of debate. This time, instead of the fear of age leading to obsolescence, the anxiety stems from post-Snowden malaise.

When a government has the ability to do its dirty work with drones and collect information on all its citizens through their devices, who needs human intelligence likes James Bond? This question is being seriously debated outside the world of the movie, and kudos to “Spectre” for not ignoring the elephant in the room. But the way Mendes and the writers choose to resolve the tension feels rather disappointing.

They use this threat as an excuse to retreat to some of the most outdated aspects of the character. Womanizing abounds as Bond pity romances a grieving widow to extract a key plot point. And Bond’s reward for neutralizing a key opponent? The “Bond girl,” Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, immediately feels the need to let him take her to bed. Simply put, there is a way to let James Bond be the ultimate man that does not require denying women agency. “Spectre” does not care to find that way as “Casino Royale” did, justifying lazy misogyny because of a rather facile challenge to Bond’s relevancy.

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