I think I like Argentina. Still on my shit-list: Chile.

A few of you asked if I was going to review Iron Man 2.  I thought I was.  I saw the first one and sort of liked it.  Robert Downey Jr’s charm works on me just like it does on all of you, and I have respect for both Cheadle and Rourke.  So yeah, I figured I’d see Iron Man 2.  But then Sunday night rolled around and I started thinking about the prospect of actually writing a review of that movie.  I mean, what could I write about an Iron man sequel?  If it was really bad that would be one thing.  I’d gladly review Ben Affleck in Daredevil 2.  But Iron Man is right up there with the Spider-Man movies in that level just below good.  I am simply not interested in reviewing sequels of that caliber.  I have no idea what I’d say.  It would probably start with “Hey, remember Iron Man 1?”

So I didn’t see it.  And I have to say, the freedom I felt when I made that decision was uplifting.  Similar to when I decided not to see Green Zone.  Nothing against these movies, but there are bigger fish to fry (and then hopefully nosh).  For this week’s review I settled on The Secret in Their Eyes, the Oscar winner for best foreign language film this year.  It was playing at the Angelika, which I love, and it was made in Argentina, a country I have a vaguely positive feeling about.  Things were looking up.  But then, disaster struck.  Subtitles?!?  FUCK. THAT. SHIT.  Seriously dude, I will not read subtitles.  So I walked out and went to Union Square to see Just Wright.

Just kidding, gang.  I’d rather look at subtitles than Queen Latifah any day of the week.  I’m an east coast media elite, remember?  Only I don’t have a cool job or impressive education.  And I’ve never been out of the country.  And I once voted for George W. Bush.  But oh boy have I ever got some opinions on things!  Plus I’m thinking about reading Proust at some point.  Not right now, but, like, next year maybe.  Right now I’m really busy with The Conquering Sword of Conan (seriously).

The Secret in Their Eyes tells the story of retired court investigator Benjamin* Esposito (Ricardo Darin).  Or, more accurately, it tells the story of him telling a story.   Esposito is in the twilight of a disappointing life.  Divorced, retired, respectable perhaps but not acclaimed.  He isn’t necessarily depressed, but he feels unfulfilled.  All of the sudden he’s pushing sixty and things haven’t worked out like he planned.  These feelings are accessible, yet not overt.  On the surface he’s just a likable guy in his late fifties.  It’s a great character.

*His name is pronounced Ben-ha-meen throughout the movie.  At first I found this annoying, but eventually it grew on me.  Possibly a future pet name.

Benjamin has decided he wants to write a book about a murder case that happened twenty years ago: the Mendoza case.  It had a profound impact on his life, and the book is an attempt to put it all behind him.  Naturally, this turns out to be easier said than done.  When he goes to visit his former boss Irene (Soledad Villamil) and tell her of his literary intentions, her reaction shows that this case was a significant event in her life as well.  It also becomes clear that these two were once more than just co-workers.  The stage is set.

From this point on the movie transitions rapidly between past and present as the viewer becomes intimately familiar with both the actual events of the case in question as well as its effects upon the two main characters’ lives.  Well over half of the action takes place in the past.  Twenty years ago a woman was murdered and Benjamin was reluctantly assigned to investigate.  He and his partner, played by Pablo Sandoval (the Argentinian version of Dustin Hoffman), see the body, meet the bereaved husband, and become personally invested in the case.  I came to really enjoy their relationship on along the way.  Great chemistry.

Our heroes eventually discover and catch the murderer, only to see him set free due to ambiguous government corruption*.  This sets off a new round of murder and intrigue which is difficult to follow.  You eventually learn what happened, but are never sure why.  This is by design.  Juan Jose Campanella, the writer and director, uses the prolonged flashback masterfully.  Your state of mind is made to mirror Benjamin’s by the time you’re deposited back in the present day.  You need answers, just like he does.  It becomes easy to see why this case interrupted his life and consumed him the way it did.  But it wasn’t just the case that consumed him.  Equally important are the revelations about Benjamin’s relationship with Irene, his boss at the time.  I’ll keep this short: they were in love with each other.  They never got together.  It was sad.

*The film attempts to make political statements from time to time.  Maybe its because I’m not familiar enough with Argentina’s political history, but these always came across really half-assed.

I didn’t much care for Villamil as Irene.  Her face was too animated.  It was obvious she was an actress playing a role, whereas Darin seemingly melted into his character with ease.  Unfortunately he was the exception, not the rule.  The acting was a little below where I’d like it pretty much across the board.  In several cases, particularly with minor characters, a little restraint would’ve gone a long way.  It was like someone wrote a serious drama and then dropped in a dash of Mexican soap opera.  I suppose that could’ve been how Campanella wanted it, but that doesn’t explain Ricardo Darin’s contrasting approach.  I’m by no means a stickler for acting prowess, and these performances weren’t terrible.  But I certainly wasn’t impressed.

Ultimately the acting does little to impede what is, above all, an excellent story.  The care with which Campanella handles the past pays huge dividends each time he returns to the present.  The characters become more tragic, the plot twists more enticing.  Benjamin’s eventual discovery of what really happened all those years ago is both totally shocking and extremely satisfying.  It also raises a difficult moral dilemma that gave me plenty to think about as I tooted batties and walked to the subway after-wards.  In fact, I was still thinking about it the next day on my dog-walking routes.  It really was pretty haunting. The film is 127 minutes long, and at minute 126 I was ready to stand and applaud.

If only Campanella had quit while he was ahead.  Unfortunately, he did not.  The final minute is a travesty.  Spoiler below.

The Secret in Their Eyes spends over two hours building gravitas only to flush it all down the toilet in search of the easiest possible ending.  After finally solving his mystery and confronting a terrifying, disgusting scene in the process, Benjamin pokes his head in at Irene’s door, they exchange a few cute pleasantries, and….. boom!  They’re a couple!  Just like they always wanted!  Isn’t that great! Yuck.  It was just so unbelievably cheap.  The reason Benjamin Esposito’s struggle seemed so believable is precisely because of his unrequited love.  To abandon what made the movie work in the first place in search of a cookie-cutter ending is lame beyond belief.  That last scene belongs in a bad romantic comedy.  Very disappointing.

next week: Robin Hood and Macgruber.  Gonna try to do a double-feature Sunday.  I’m calling it “An evening with Blanchett and Wiig.”  The question is, who would I rather have sex with: Blanchett dressed as Galadriel or Wiig dressed as Gilly?  Tough call.  I better take a nap.


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