Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009, Juan Jose Campanella)

Not hard to see how this ended up winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, considering that its primary competition was the behind-bars brutality of The Prophet and the didactic scolding of Michael Haneke’s man’s-inhumanity-to-man illustration The White Ribbon. Compared to those two, The Secret in Their Eyes is pretty standard awards-bait, a gussied-up big-screen version of Law and Order in which the melancholy undertone doesn’t get in the way of the Very Bad Guy getting more or less what’s coming to him. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, then how else would you describe a serviceable murder mystery with relatively standard characterizations and bolstered by a handful of memorable scenes?

Of course, the word “memorable” doesn’t necessarily imply “awesome”, and there are few better recent examples of this than Secret’s much-ballyhooed centerpiece sequence, in which the hero and his hard-drinking sidekick (guess what happens to him?) finally track down the baddie at a football match. For some reason, Campanella felt it wise to shoot the entire scene in one extended “impossible” take, beginning with a helicopter shot into the stadium, then following the hero through the crowded bleachers, followed by an extended foot chase, after which the culprit jumps down onto the field and is eventually apprehended. Granted, it’s all very technically impressive how Campanella and his visual effects team put it together. The problem is that it’s so attention-grabbing that it took me right out of the movie.

Now, I’m a fan of long takes- seeing as how I’m a DePalma fanboy, this should go without saying. But in order for them to work, one of two things has to be true: either the camera movement looks and feels like something a camera could actually do, or the movie that surrounds the shot isn’t aspiring to realism. However, this shot failed both of these tests. It would be one thing if Campanella was making a frenzied movie-movie kind of thriller (a la DePalma), but most of The Secret in Their Eyes is relatively sedate stylistically. Therefore, as soon as the camera descended into the crowd of football fans, I became absorbed less in what was happening in the story than I was in how impressive the shot was. So, a lesson to all filmmakers with any sort of budget for special effects- just because you can create something snazzy doesn’t make it the right choice. As far as I’m concerned, that single shot brought my grade down one point by itself. And when the movie’s only pretty good to begin with, that makes a world of difference.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

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