On the eve of the Oscars, two European movies about violence in a community were favourites for Best Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon (violence in a village) and A Prophet (violence in a jail). Guess what? An outsider, not for the first time, romped past and won. Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes, () from Argentina, is about violence in – well – the bedroom. But the implied arena is larger. Both the story’s murders contribute to a sombre, weirdly enthralling film about a country caught napping by private tensions that speak of public and social-political faultlines.
The usual response from critics when favoured masterworks are pipped by an unknown film is: “Oh those Motion Picture Academicians. What do they know?” Granted, Campanella is not Michael Haneke or Jacques Audiard, who should have divided the spoils. And his film could be tagged a “well-made drama” if you want to hurl a Shaftesbury Avenue insult. But its neat structure and whodunit momentum, one could argue, are just cosmetic come-ons.
A girl found raped and slain; an investigation by a court official (Ricardo Darín); a new woman lawyer (Soledad Villamil) fizzing up the legal workplace; a culprit caught and convicted but released early as a police informer. Complications mesh, like the workings of a watch. Are Darín and Villamil falling for each other? Why is the story framed by flash-forward scenes of their meeting 25 years on? What about the girl victim’s husband (Pablo Rago), who seems so devastated? Is he as simple as he appears?
The film rattles along like a well-crafted Hollywood noir, circa 1945. The very faces are temps perdu Tinseltown: the two leads could be Gene Tierney and George Brent gone Latin. Even the dialogue is snap-brimmed – “They don’t teach the new Argentina at Harvard,” someone cracks to the US-graduated Villamil (“Cornell,” she corrects) – while the supporting characters are wired with Warners-worthy idiosyncrasies. The supposed killer (Javier Godino) is a creepy dandy with phosphoric eyes. Darín’s drink-prone colleague, marvellously played by Guillermo Francella, is a bar-hound looking for wisdom in the bottom of a glass but finding it at the end of a gun barrel.
The Hollywood styling, though, is just the bark on the tree. The core and sap are the film’s presentation of a country riddled with mistrust, even among the professionals of its justice system. Virtue raises its voice at opportunism, honour at graft. Corruption, heritage of the junta years, yells back. There is no place here, it says (while filling its pockets), for naivety. In the end, Darín’s hero gets his hands and soul dirty. He scrapes through, in a powerful final scene, to the truth, the grisly truth and nothing but the truth.
François Ozon’s new film Le Refuge () has the felicities we expect from the French director of Under the Sand and Swimming Pool. Delicately naturalistic acting; musings on love and death; atmospheric locations.
So why is it so synthetic? I reckon I disbelieved it from the moment that pretty heroin addict Isabelle Carré comes back whistle-clean a few weeks after her boyfriend’s death from an OD. She retires pregnant to a country cottage, where the dead man’s gay brother (Louis-Ronan Choisy) comes to visit for absolutely no clear reason. Nor is it apparent why he stays, though Ozon applies the bellows to believability by supplying him with a local male lover (also unconvincing). Will Carré and Choisy find a truthful way to purge the past?
Ozon says he built the script around the accident of a pregnant-for-real actress. There are indeed about 800 close-ups, roughly counted, of Carré’s shiny tummy, tenderly felt by every character, including the only convincing one, a creepy pregnancy-harpie on the beach, played by Rohmer veteran Marie Rivière. She nags Carré evangelistically on baby care, until Carré flees. After that, we return to the film’s default style: a bland, lifeless, fake-radiant optimism.
Meanwhile, in another part of the movie culture, children are being processed through the silly season. They enter the turnstiles to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice () or The Last Airbender () as normal human beings and emerge as hepped-up sprites with supernatural powers. Or so I envision. Now they can dart about the skies zapping super-villains, bending elements, fighting dragons, and saving the cosmos for God, humanity and Jerry Bruckheimer.
Bruckheimer produced The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is like National Treasure (another of his Disney franchises) crossed with a vaudeville version of Goethe’s Faust. Goethe wrote the poem originating the title story, which later became a Dukas score, later still a Mickey Mouse segment of Fantasia. That famous sequence gets a nod here, the young hero (Jay Baruchel) accidentally activating the brooms in the New York laboratory of magician Balthazar (Nicolas Cage). Balthazar is a returned-to-life version of one of the wizards who battled Merlin 1,200 years ago, another being his arch-enemy Horvath, returned to life as Alfred Molina, and Horvath needs Balthazar because the wizard Veronica (Monica Bellucci), who was long ago locked in the Grimhold . . .
No, don’t go away, I’ve hardly started. There’s more plot to hear. You’d rather jump off a tall building? Well, there’s plenty of that too. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice everyone is jumping, flying, zapping, metamorphosing, exploding. Or alternatively inserting long speeches of exposition into your skull, attempting to persuade you that fantasy insanity has narrative logic.
Sorcerer – fun for 20 minutes, remorseless thereafter – is a close cousin to The Last Airbender, adapted by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Happening) from a children’s TV series confusingly called Avatar. (Titles collide in a universe of parallel realities.) The film is a delirium about magical tribes who harness the elements to wage war. “My brother and I live in the Southern Water tribe,” intones the first voice-over. I felt a tremor of recognition. What, the people who impose hosepipe bans in Sussex? No, another Southern Water, though also clearly busy. On the phone you would probably get: “Please choose from the following options. Press one if you want to help us fight the war to end all wars . . .”
Again, I didn’t understand what this war was about. (Take a six-year-old child if possible.) There are fantastic sets, out of The Chronicles of Narnia by The White Hell of Pitz Palu, and fantastic special effects. The air is bent like nobody’s business. After 20 minutes, though, I again felt the approach of coma. When nothing you believe or believe in is at stake, your plot-receptor mechanisms close down. Your reluctance to understand intensifies your failure to understand. Soon you are a speck of illiteracy on a cosmic map belonging entirely to children.
At least I understood Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue () . Normal paint-and-brush animation. Normal Hollywood fairies, looking like Barbie and sounding like Valley High school graduates. (“Hul-lo?”). And a plot I could just about follow concerning silly English people with funny accents – do they mean us? – who need help from fairy dust and the higher IQ of the supra-mortal.