Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Movie Review: By The Sea/Secret In Their Eyes (2015)



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There are a great many reasons why people make films: To create capital-A Art, to portray a certain point, to give others a view into the psyche of the filmmaker(s), to showcase a person’s abilities, or even as a means to filter unchecked drug money. Hell, it can even be for reasons as simple as a given person has access to the equipment and means to film something. Now, given how I have watched, reviewed, loved and hated films that wildly vary in terms of the whys and hows, it would be rather foolish to say that any one reason is more meaningful than the other. However, with the advent of the ‘film star’ has come a particularly troubling reason: A means to get a paid vacation. Way too often, we see actors starring in films of questionable merit, featuring beautiful locales all strung together with the kind of writing that usually results in a combination of mashing one’s face into the keyboard and Spell Check. That said, today’s film is a bit different from that, as said star is also the writer, producer and director. Basically, if anything goes wrong, it’s all Angelina Jolie’s fault. Let’s get started as I focus my aim now that I know who the target is: This is By The Sea.

The plot: Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie-Pitt [Yeah, she was credited as this, just so there’s no confusion about the two actors and their relation to each other]), in the hope of both rekindling their failing marriage and giving inspiration to Roland for his writing, go to a small seaside French hotel for a vacation. They soon take notice of a newlywed couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvin Poupaud) in the same hotel and, as they start to take an interest in them, it seems that they may be alright again through rather unorthodox means.

For the majority of the film, we see Brangelina drinking wine, dining, playing cards, showering, all while they ponder about what has happened to their marriage. Yeah, all of a sudden, that assumption about this being a filmed paid holiday makes too much sense because the writing here feels like it was done on the fly without any real planning put into it. Apart from the core reason for the marital woes (which is treated like a shocking reveal and yet is heavily alluded to as early as the second scene containing dialogue), everything is constantly in flux: Their level of affection for each other, the effect watching the other couple is having on them, the tone of the overall film; none of it is consistent with itself. Whenever it feels like some development is being made in Brad and Angelina’s relationship (why bother naming them after their characters for a film this weak?), the next scene will directly contradict what just happened. Then again, that’s in the rare few moments when something actually does happen. Last time I saw Brad Pitt acting in a film that had this little actually happening in it, it was with The Tree Of Life. However, even with how I detest that film, an argument can at least be made that the visuals were worth the trudge. Here, while the cinematography is lovely, it isn’t nearly enough.

For the entire first act, not much really happens aside from reminding the audience of other films they could be watching instead: An older married couple influencing newlyweds who live next door (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?), a writer going to a secluded hotel with his wife to help give him inspiration to write (The Shining), … actually, bugger the third comparison I was about to make, this film is a lot like The Shining. Now, while many people would probably like to disagree with me, I couldn’t stand The Shining: Horribly miscast, weakly written and, above all else, edited in such an awkward manner as to induce laughter. That last bit is what connects these two films together, as Martin Pensa and Patricia Rommel need to be reprimanded for what they did here. If it isn’t blatant continuity errors like a suddenly soaking wet shirt, then it’s frames of unidentified pretentious objects randomly inserted into the scene. Not only that, the duo are so chop-happy that it often feels like they were attempting to salvage footage that couldn’t be re-shot but also featured an actor flub.

However, once the second act kicks in, things actually start happening. And by “things”, I mean “you sure this wasn’t a comedy?”. Brangelina spend a majority of the second act just spying on the younger couple having sex. At one point, they even take the couple out to dinner and a drink, just to see what will happen in their room if they’re drunk. I don’t usually summarize parts of the film beyond the synopsis, but I’m making an exception here because this is some of the goofiest stuff I’ve seen all year that I was apparently supposed to take seriously. With all the French dialogue being utilized, this feels like a quirky French comedy that got a very drastic re-write somewhere down the line; maybe it’s because, in that context, this idea could have worked. However, much like pretty much any other potential bit of interesting writing in this film, this is never properly utilized. As the film continues showing one of Hollywood’s power couples playing disgruntled voyeurs, complete with them eating dinner on the floor right next to the peep hole, this jovial tone ends up crashing head-first with the more sombre air of the first act as the film inches closer to the end credits. This is usually a scenario that would result in some good old-fashioned mindfrag material, but the film isn’t even engaging enough to do that. Yes, even with the boost the unintentionally hilarious parts give it, this is still an incredibly boring film.

All in all, this is a vanity project in every sense of the term. If it isn’t just showing off Angelina Jolie’s figure, it’s glorifying her ‘character’ as being the victim regardless of whatever ends up happening. The only watchable part of this film is when they spy on the younger couple having sex, but even then it’s more like two scientists watching lab mice fuck; it’s more awkward than anything else. This is worse than Kill Me Three Times as, while they are both tedious to watch, the rare moments of enjoyment in that film were more genuine than the incidental hilarity of this. However, because this still managed to give me enjoyment on that level, that makes rank higher than The Last Witch Hunter. Because of what this ultimately is and the reason it was made, I can only recommend seeing it if you do so by the cheapest means possible; if she thinks this is worth releasing, then quite frankly she doesn’t deserve your hard-earned cash money.

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The big contributor to how and why a lot of actors get typecast into certain roles is that, for better or for worse, said actors work really damn well in those particular roles. Martin Freeman will always be seen as the English everyman who gets thrown into extraordinary circumstances because he has built a healthy pedigree on those roles thanks to The Office and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, among others; Patrick Stewart is the elderly mentor figure for a rag-tag team in a sci-fi setting that is meant to save worlds on numerous occasions; Jai Courtney can’t be anything more than a red flag that the film you’re about to sit through isn’t going to work, etc. That last one may seem unfair, and yeah I have made fun of him a lot more than I probably should, but the fact remains that even real-life events can affect how a person can become typecast. And no, I don’t just mean John McEnroe being irate in every TV and film appearance he’s had. I’m talking more about how Julia Roberts has developed a reputation for more than a little egotistical and kind of crazed, and then the trailer for today’s film shows her as a psychotic breakdown waiting to happen. Sometimes, casting perfectly aligns on certain productions. This is Secrets In Their Eyes.

The plot: On a routine search of a dead body found near a local mosque, FBI agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is shocked to discover that the victim is the daughter of his colleague Jess (Julia Roberts). Thirteen years later, Ray thinks that he has found the person responsible (Joe Cole) after he escaped from them last time. However, both Jess and district attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman) doubt that it is really him. As Ray continues to hunt down the culprit, memories and feelings connected to the events all those years ago start to come back up and, in the process, the need for justice may consume them all.

Okay, even with my joking about the casting of Julia Roberts, this is an excellently acted film. Chiwetel Ejiofor is phenomenal, as he translates the character’s obsession and distraught reactions into a powerful performance. Julia Roberts is far more sobering than the rather misleading trailer would have audiences believe, echoing Ejiofor’s drive while channelling her own determination and despair as well. The rest of the cast are very effective as well, with Joe Cole being very unnerving as Marzin, Dean Norris being a good supporting man as Bumpy, Michael Kelly being a complete prick as Reg and Alfred Molina bringing the goods as well as the former DA Morales. The big chink in the chain, though, is Nicole Kidman, which is honestly surprising. Not because she’s all that great an actress herself, as she has never really impressed in films past. No, this is surprising because she is responsible for easily the best scene in the entire film. When she ends up confronting Marzin herself, it is an amazing thing to witness and I won’t dare spoil why. Outside of that one scene however, she constantly falls behind the rest of the cast in terms of capabilities. This isn’t helped by the fact that, despite being one of the three main characters, she is mostly relegated to being the love interest of Ray. Said romantic subplot is probably the worst handled part of the entire film, as its development is rather poor and its relevance to the overall story is minimal at best. Beyond just the casting, probably the big thing that kept distracting me while watching the film is how the actors are aged when going from 2002 to 2015; in that, they honestly haven’t. All that has really been done is changing their hair styles: Kidman lets her locks down when she gets older, Norris loses some hair, Ejiofor gets some grey on the sides, etc. I’ll admit that it does enough to make it easy to distinguish between time periods, but it’s still jarring to see how little these people age in thirteen years. After having seen Reese Witherspoon pull it off flawlessly in Wild earlier this year, this feels subpar.

When it comes to the main story, however, this film enters into its strides. While the themes of revenge are well-handled and the characterization that results from it is portrayed nicely, it works even better when put into the film’s historical context; specifically, the attitudes of the U.S. post-9/11. The plot as shown in 2002 spotlights a police department that sees counter-terrorism as the most important thing in the world, to the point where it is worth defying all other forms of law enforcement in order to preserve. I have maintained that subjectivity is near-impossible in my line of work, because it is essentially built on the idea that everyone is a critic with their own perspectives. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important in other areas, and law enforcement is most certainly one of them. As we watch Ray, Jess and Claire frantically trying to justify their own actions in terms of bringing Mazrin to justice, it becomes clear that they most certainly are not looking out for justice anymore; they want bloody satisfaction. Considering what measures are being taken by the higher-ups in order to protect their snitch who could bring down a sleeper cell operating in the nearby mosque, it’s not that difficult to draw a similar conclusion. Of course, while the two ideas work great as parallels, things start to become muddled once they intersect. It is an extremely uncomfortable question to ponder if it is worth protecting a murderous rapist to bring down a cell that could potentially kill hundreds, if not thousands, and I most certainly won’t try and do so here. I may have been getting too political of late, but even I know when to step down from my soap-box. At this stage, I’ll just leave it at how almost anything can become justified once something becomes personal and this film does a great job of portraying that.

All in all, my opinion on this might be helped by my unfamiliarity with the original Argentinian film of the same name. However, given the ideological differences between the settings of the two films, I have enough reason to think that this film can stand on its own and it damn well does. The acting is outstanding, with even Nicole Kidman being given a chance to shine which she takes full advantage of, the atmosphere is thick with intrigue and tragedy, and the writing not only works in the moment as a study into the want for revenge and its more political implications, but it carries enough subtleties to work on a Fridge Brilliance level as well. It ranks higher than Sicario as, even with how crushingly dark and brilliantly shot that film was, this managed to maintain a steady pace and never hit any lulls. However, despite how intense the ending of this is, the overall package didn’t leave me on as fulfilling a note as Lead Me Astray. Remake comparisons be damned, this film deserves to be seen on its own terms.

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