13 March 2011

Senses of Cinema: Devil's Island

My essay "Understanding the Socio-Political Background Behind Devil's Island" has been published by the online film quarterly Senses of Cinema. You can read it here.

09 March 2011

The Secret in Their Eyes

While waiting for In a Better World (2010, Hævnen) to become available, I finally got around to watching last year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Picture, The Secret in Their Eyes (2009, El secreto de sus ojos). The film was Argentina's submission and beat out Germany's The White Ribbon (2009, Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte), France's A Prophet (2009, Un prophète), Israel's Ajami (2009), and Peru's The Milk of Sorrow (2009, La Teta Asustada).

Plot synopsis
The film, though not explicitly a mystery, certainly does borrow a lot from the mystery genre. The story follows a retired detective as he sets about writing a novel about an unresolved case involving the rape and murder of a young woman. The film oscillates between the present and his attempts to better understand the case as he writes and the past events of the case. Things unfold slowly, and there are certainly some twists, so I'll try to avoid spoiling too much.

The film begins with three stylistically shot scenes. First, we see a man leaving in a train, with a woman running after it. She catches up long enough to put her hand against the glass, with him doing the same. Then we see a new scene, accompanied by a voice over: "On June 21st, 1974, Ricardo Morales had breakfast with Liliana Coloto for the last time. For the rest of his life he'd remember every single detail of that morning: planning their first vacation; drinking tea with lemon for his nagging cough, with his usual lump and a half of sugar; the fresh berry jam he'd never taste again; the flowers printed on her nightgown; and especially, her smile. That smile like the sunrise, blending in with the sunlight on her left cheek."

Finally, there is a very brief, abrupt, and startling scene. It is composed of broken up shots with dutch angles and frantic camera movements. It shows the beginning of the rape.

Although unclear at first, we find out that all three of these scenes are pieces of the story that the detective, Benjamin Espósito, is trying to write. Currently, he has writer's block as he tries to figure out how to begin his novel. He seeks help from one of his old co-workers and unrequited love interest Irene Menéndez-Hastings, who tells him to just start at the beginning and go from there. And so, Espósito starts his story at the point where he first became involved in the case. The film follows from there in a logical fashion, unfolding the events as they happened, although it will occasionally jump back to the present, where Espósito does additional work and research and begins to understand the truth of the case better.

A life full of nothing
The film is thematically dense, addressing numerous intertwining concepts throughout the narrative. There are two quotes in particular that give a good sense of the kind of issues with which The Secret in Their Eyes is grappling.

The first is espoused by Espósito's partner and good friend, Pablo Sandoval. He says, "A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there's one thing he can't change. He can't change his passion." The other quote is repeated by numerous characters, and comes as a somewhat rhetorical question, "How does one live a life full of nothing?"

To be honest, the film never fully resolves these issues and ideas. It is more an exploration into the human condition. It seems to state that, as much as people might change, their "true character" never will. The question of "How does one live a life full of nothing?" is an existential one, and we see different characters trying to answer it for themselves.

On a side note, the film also seems to suggest that the judicial system in Argentina is highly flawed. Numerous times in The Secret in Their Eyes, justice is served not through the proper legal system, but by people disregarding the law to take matters in to their own hands. Likewise, the system itself is repeatedly shown to be corrupt and self-serving. I don't know if there is cultural significance to this or not.

Final thoughts
Overall, my favourite part of this movie were the characters. They were quite colourful. In particular, Sandoval was great. He is the prefect blend of scummy drunken low-life and wise and genuinely good underneath all the filth.

The film is, honestly, quite excellent, and I think it deserved to beat The White Ribbon for Best Foreign Language Picture. I would certainly recommend it to any fan of foreign cinema.

07 March 2011

The King's Speech

A few nights ago, I watched this year's winner for Best Picture, The King's Speech (2010), and I'm here now to let you know what I thought of it. It was good. It wasn't great. But it was good, and it's definitely an "Oscars" kind of film. By that, I mean that it may not really be remembered much in the future for any reason other than winning an Oscar.

For example, you may remember The English Patient (1996), but you're probably more familiar with a film that lost to it: Fargo (1996). Of course, this becomes more pronounced the further back in film history you go. I think we've all heard of Citizen Kane (1941), but did you know it lost the award for Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley (1941), which also beat out the proto-film noir The Maltese Falcon (1941)? I could list numerous other examples, but I don't want to bore you. I think you got the point. You just have to take the Academy Awards with a grain of salt.

Superbly acted
That said, I did enjoy The King's Speech. It was well-done. Not surprising (as actors make up the largest voting percentage), the acting in particular was superb. It's thus not surprising that Colin Firth won Best Actor, as he did very well, especially considering the fact that he also had to create a convincing stutter. The film did exceptionally well at other award ceremonies as well, especially in the area of acting. It also seemed to be quite popular at British award shows, which shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Afterall, the film is about one of their beloved monarchs, King George VI.

Human beings
However, that may be part of what I personally didn't like as much about this film. I tend to like movies about common, everyday people. Just look at some of my favourite films. Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952) is about a middle-aged bureaucrat who finds out he has stomach cancer. Dagur Kári's Nói Albinói (2003) and Dark Horse (2005, Voksne mennesker) are both about aimless slackers. Bille August's Twist and Shout (1984, Tro, håb og kærlighed) is about regular teenagers learning about love, sex, and friendship in 1960s Denmark. Closely Watched Trains (1966, Ostře sledované vlaky) could be about a great soldier, giving that it's set during the end of WWII in Czechoslovakian and features resistance attempts against the German occupiers, but it largely focuses on a boy who just wants to get laid.

But The King's Speech? It's about a king, obviously. And for whatever reason, that made me not connect with him as much. I will admit that the plot, centering on his struggle with a speech impediment, does serve to humanize him a great deal. Still, it's a different feel. This isn't a movie saying, "Look at this fragile human being. They have a story to tell too," but rather, "Look at this great political figure. They are a human being too." It's still a nice story, but it just doesn't appeal to me as much. And really, at the end, I feel like that was the only real point behind this film: to humanize a king.

Final thoughts
All in all, I think I would've preferred that Black Swan (2010) win. I think it had a more compelling story and message. It challenged people to think about the concept of "perfection" and the lengths that artists will go to attain it. It was uneasy at times for a reason. Not just because of the more grotesque, surreal scenes, but because of what those scenes represented. The King's Speech was always so clean and safe. Even the long burst of swear words in one of the scenes is pretty tame, all things considered.

And, of course, I was secretly hoping for Toy Story 3 (2010) to win. I think it's a film that will stick with people of all ages. And those who are seeing it for the first time will find it continuing to have new things to say as they watch it again and again throughout the years. Plus, after Arcade Fire won Album of the Year, it would be nice to see something else win an award outside of the subcategory it would normally be confined to (Best Alternative Music Album for Arcade Fire, Best Animated Feature for Toy Story 3).