Secret In Their Eyes

 

Here’s a mystery that offers a large number of questions. What exactly happened? Who did it? How good is the evidence? Were Muslims involved? Who was that guy at the office picnic? Is the suspect really that big a Dodgers fan? Did someone spend 13 years looking at photos of inmates? Secret In Their Eyes throws out many questions, a handful of hints, but few solid answers until the final act.

Secret In Their Eyes is notable because it features Julia Roberts as a haggard, world-weary, older woman who dresses in drab attire. Audiences have seen many looks from Julia over the last quarter century, but this may be the least glamorous face she’s shown the world.

Roberts plays Jess, an investigator in the L.A. district attorney’s office. Her daughter is found dead in 2002 in a dumpster next door to a mosque. In the year after 9/11, law enforcers, including the D.A. (Alfred Molina) are obsessed with terror threats.

Her former colleague, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) returns to L.A. in present day with a lead on the murder. He tries to convince the current D.A. Claire (Nicole Kidman) to let him pursue the man he suspects did the deed 13 years earlier. He claims to have pored over online photos of prisoners across America and found the one whose eyes match those of a man in a photo.

As plain jane-ish as Julia appears, Nicole is as gorgeous as she’s ever been, with a top-notch wardrobe. Both women, by the way, are 48 years old.

A problem with the film and its storytelling (Billy Ray is writer and director) is the transitions between 2015 and 2002. They are not always clearly demarcated. The film is adapted from a 2009 Argentinian film El Secreto De Sus Ojos, which is ranked #134 on IMDB’s list of the all-time Top 250 films.

Secret In Their Eyes has a simmering unrequited romance between Ray and Clare. He has the hots for her but she keeps him away, mentioning her fiancé back east.

A scene I loved was a drone flyover shot of Dodger Stadium showing purported game action, just before a scene where Ray and fellow investigator Bumpy (Dean Norris) pursue the alleged perp.

Despite flaws in pacing, choppy delivery of the narrative and a few misdirections, Secret In Their Eyes is a decent, if not great, well-acted crime mystery.

The Martian

Is there such a thing as too much comic relief? Yes, and The Martian is plagued by it.

The Martian has a heck of a story. A NASA mission to Mars chooses to begin its journey home to Earth hurriedly as a giant storm stirs on the red planet. One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is blown away by the high winds and left for dead as the others blast off for home.

But, wait! Watney’s not quite dead. He heads back into the Mars mission habitat the next day and evaluates his chances of surviving until the next NASA Mars mission occurs. He constructs an indoor potato farm to provide an ongoing food source and makes other accommodations to stay alive.

Meanwhile, the NASA crew in Houston (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover and others) eulogizes Watney but soon realizes that he is still alive. Watney manages to communicate, crudely at first, with the crew back on Earth.

As the other members of the departed Mars crew (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara) hurdle through space on the long journey home, they learn that Watney is alive and that he does not blame them for abandoning him.

Will Watney stay alive? Will NASA rescue him? Will NASA send him food and supplies? Will NASA move up the next scheduled MARS mission? How will Mark Watney’s story end? The tension builds. But each time it begins to crescendo, here comes the comic relief.

The funny stuff IS amusing. But it lightens the mood a bit too much, in my opinion. (This was an issue with 2013’s Gravity where George Clooney’s jokey character seemed more like the real-life Clooney than a believable astronaut. In 2000’s Cast Away, a similarly stranded Tom Hanks had some lighter moments—notably with a volleyball—but the underlying peril level was maintained throughout his ordeal.)

The Martian looks great, particularly in 3D. It is directed by one of our best directors, Ridley Scott. Matt Damon, as usual, is solid in the title role. The script is by Drew Goddard from the popular novel by Andy Weir. (That’s the one that started in 2011 with the author sharing one chapter at a time online, followed by a Kindle version, followed by publication in hardcover last year.)

The Martian comes close to being a home run, but doesn’t quite clear the fence. It’s a solid three-bagger, however, and that is not a bad thing. (Baseball is on our minds these days here in St. Louis.)

12 Years A Slave

12 Years a Slave is slow, overly long and filled with disturbing scenes. It is also one of the year’s best movies.

The true story is simple. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, NY. He has a wife and kids. An accomplished musician, he is recruited by two “magicians” to provide music for their act.

After dinner at a restaurant in Washington, Northup wakes up in chains. He is kidnapped and sold at a slave market. Paul Giamatti appears as a slave broker, with the ironic name, Freeman.

Northup’s first owner in Louisiana is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is, despite his participation in slavery, a decent man. He treats Northup with a bit of respect. He gives Northup a violin. His overseers, however, are brutal idiots. One of the overseers (Paul Dano, who is becoming typecast as a weasel) fights Northup and loses.

Later Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an abusive slave owner. The depictions of inhumanity are overwhelming. Brad Pitt plays Bass, a contractor who works on a building for Epps and utilizes Northup’s skills. The slave tells his story, Bass gets word to the folks back in New York and, in short order, Northup is freed and returned home.

Director Steve McQueen tells Northup’s story in a plodding, deliberate manner. But that’s appropriate. Life in the Antebellum South—even during cotton harvest—moved at a slower pace. It’s obvious that screenwriter John Ridley had to condense a good deal of the real-life Northup’s book to tell his story and to depict the life of a slave.

Movies have been around for over 100 years. Racial attitudes in America have changed greatly during that time. (See D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for a century-ago depiction of black Americans.) It seems odd that Northup’s story would not have been brought to the screen until now.

12 Years a Slave is not light entertainment. It stirs emotions. It might make you cry. Chitwetel Ejiofor could be this year’s answer to Quvenzhané Wallis, the young girl who amazed in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like her, he has a challenging name and owns his movie. (She, by the way, has a tiny roll in 12YAS as one of Northup’s daughters.) Like her, he is likely to be mentioned when awards nominations are announced. Unlike her, a rookie when she made Beasts, he is a film veteran who has now found his breakout role.

12 Years may be challenging for some audience members, but it has the basic elements that  make a great film: strong characters, a compelling story and a nuanced telling of the story. This is not the Gone With The Wind or even the Django Unchained version of slavery. This is brutal and stark. See it and be impressed.