In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And we are back to origin stories…
A tortured genius, a bit of an asshole, a lot socially inept—I could be describing any number of the characters Benedict Cumberbatch has played throughout his career, but in this particular case I am describing Stephen Strange, first name-dropped in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now, two years later, making his big screen debut. Yet while Cumberbatch seems destined for the role, and indeed he was the first actor suggested, scheduling conflicts forced Marvel to look at a whole host of other performers, with everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Matthew McConaughey apparently in the running, as well as future co-stars of Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. But, finally, Cumberbatch sealed the deal, cementing his typecast forever.
There’s a reason, though, that Cumberbatch is so well known for playing these rather callous individuals (a trend which started with Sherlock back in 2010)—he’s damn good at it. Stephen Strange, renowned neurosurgeon, is a huge ass. While he seems to have a decent relationship with his colleagues, he regularly touts how superior a surgeon he is (especially to Michael Stuhlbarg—woefully underused here—as Nicodemus West, a minor antagonist to Strange in the comics); he has an obnoxious collection of rotating watches; he turns down patients because he doesn’t want to mess up his perfect record and treats them as experiments rather than people in need of help. His fear of failure and desire to control everything drive him to extremes, so when he gets into a car crash, it’s not exactly heartbreaking.
It kickstarts an existential crisis for Strange, though, who loses the use of his hands—the hands which gave him his livelihood, which vaulted him to excellence—and, in his despair, pushes away the only person who truly cares about him (and his ex), Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), another in the long line of neglected female love interests. Eventually, he sinks so low that he is willing to seek out solutions that come not from science, but magic. Dr. Strange quickly finds his way to the Kamar-Taj in Nepal, where he meets a group of sorcerers led by the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton.
Marvel, as in Iron Man 3, tried to sidestep controversy in casting Swinton, and instead wound up stirring it up as they cast a white woman in a role traditionally occupied by a Tibetan man. Doctor Strange’sdirector, horror veteran Scott Derrickson, avoided casting an Asian actor in an attempt to steer clear of stereotypes, saying, “In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a Dragon Lady… Who’s the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.” Co-writer (with Derrickson and Jon Spaihts) C. Robert Cargill called the situation “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru,” referencing the impossible training situation from Star Trek: have a mustachioed Asian man dispensing “Eastern wisdom” to the white man, or have accusations of appropriation thrown your way by casting a non-Asian.
Yet the choice shouldn’t be between stereotypical representation or no representation at all. As Kevin Feige would later admit, “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.” (That he declines to elaborate on how he would do this now is perhaps an indicator that he only said this to cover up bad PR from years ago, but…)
Casting Swinton also means that Doctor Strange lacks Asian representation aside from Benedict Wong’s character (named, uh, Wong), something that stings when much of the movie builds itself on Westernized Asian “mysticism,” with monks and magic and chakras and no specificity. The white man goes to Asia, ogles at some things, and finds his spirit healed, hooray! Marvel would have similar problems with Netflix’s critically panned Iron Fist, with Finn Jones’ (white) Danny Rand utilizing his Chi to take down (Asian) bad guys, and to a lesser extent in Daredevil, where season two villainous group The Hand consisted of ninjas that had no characteristics except “foreign/Asian” and “scary.” Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda would even claim that former Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb said, “Nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people. There were three previous Marvel movies, a trilogy called Blade that was made where Wesley Snipes killed 200 Asians each movie. Nobody gives a shit.”
(Loeb, it should be noted, reported to Ike Perlmutter rather than Kevin Feige until Marvel Television shut down in 2019, giving all television powers to Feige. It also should be noted that Marvel Television had Marvel’s first Asian superhero with Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which also featured Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May as a main character for all seven seasons, and had an Asian co-showrunner in Maurissa Tancharoen, whose brother Kevin helmed some of the series’ best episodes. S.H.I.E.L.D. is where it’s at, folks.)
In the case of Doctor Strange, there is also the small issue that China does not recognize Tibet as a sovereign state, and Marvel didn’t want to lose out on that sweet, sweet Chinese box office. Cargill explained, “[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This was not the first time Marvel catered to China and the CCP, nor will it be the last.
The circumstances around Swinton’s casting (and Marvel’s historically abysmal handling of Asian representation) are unfortunate, as she does a stellar job as the Ancient One, conveying all the wisdom of eternity while still maintaining a sense of playfulness that prevents the character from slipping into caricature or tropes. And, of course, she really looks like she could be an ageless, ancient sorcerer with immense power at her fingertips. “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells Strange, and then opens the door.
What follows is a very trippy sequence involving Strange travelling through outer space, tumbling through different dimensions, and getting dragged to hell by a horde of hands. Up until this point, the MCU has largely tried to ground itself in some kind of implausible plausibility. Even Asgard’s magic was cloaked as science and handwaved away with Arthur C. Clarke quotes, but in Doctor Strange, we dive headfirst into something that cannot be explained with pure science, as much as its titular character would like to think so, and open up innumerable doors within the MCU sandbox. Strange, the ultimate logician, gets pushed so far that he seeks answers outside of the scientific realm he built his life on. It’s an interesting conundrum for a character to find himself in, though he seems to change course quickly enough, which leaves us wanting a bit more emotional turmoil. The revelation that magic exists should entirely upend Strange’s world, but we have a plot to get through, after all, and so after the initial shock of the Ancient One punching Strange’s astral form out of his body, he gets down to work.
Like Ant-Man before it, Doctor Strange has all the elements required for some very kooky shenanigans, yet plays it disappointingly safe. To Doctor Strange’s credit, none of its predecessors have tiny hands swarming around the main character as he tumbles through a strange LSD trip, but it never truly breaks free of the largely uninspiring Marvel visual palette. There’s always the sense that things could and should go even further, even though it certainly breaks new ground for Marvel. But not everything in this universe should just be good for Marvel (though that has certainly satisfied me plenty of times, don’t get me wrong), it should be bold in its own right, and Doctor Strange never quite goes far enough, leaving us only with weak comparisons to Inception and The Matrix.
As Strange throws himself into his sorcerer training, and his old arrogance begins to return, though it’s tempered with a bit more humility this time around. Still, he sees fit to pocket the Eye of Agamotto, a powerful magical object with the ability to reverse the flow of time, for himself. Control freak to the last, it would seem.
Trouble comes in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student bearing striking resemblance in personality to Strange. Kaecilius wants to fold Earth into the Dark Dimension (whatever that is) and Dormammu (whoever that is, though he is also played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to give everyone eternal life (through locking everyone in a place without time), which is not the most exciting motivation for Marvel villain—world annihilation is so overdone these days—but it’s Mads Mikkelsen, and that gives a measure of gravitas to the proceedings. But it’s not just a desire to avoid the ravages of time that drives Kaecilius: in a reveal that bears less weight than it should, given that the Dark Dimension means virtually nothing to the audience, it turns out that the Ancient One can be so ancient because she draws on force from the Dark Dimension to extend her life, and Kaecilius wishes to drag her hypocrisy out into the light.
That he does, disillusioning fellow sorcerer Karl Mordo, played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor; though Mordo does not have a whole lot to do here, Ejiofor is magnetic, and poised to become one of the more interesting characters in future entries. Mordo is rigid, unyielding, and has no tolerance for the bending or breaking of rules, especially as the Ancient One made herself the only exception.
Kaecilius succeeds in fatally wounding the Ancient One, but before she dies, she and Strange astral project to have one final conversation on a hospital balcony, watching the snow fall. “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning: to know your days are numbered, your time is short,” the Ancient One tells Strange. It’s a beautiful moment frozen in time, and Tilda Swinton is phenomenal; unfortunately, the Ancient One’s excuse for utilizing the Dark Dimension—“Sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good”—rings a bit hollow. Perhaps “hollow” isn’t the right word, but I wish her hypocrisy had been explored more, rather than by and large glossed over, as it adds an interesting dimension to the world Strange now inhabits, the Ancient One, and Kaecilius.
With their leader dead, Strange, Wong, and Mordo set out to stop Kaecilius and Dormammu once and for all. The finale to Doctor Strange serves as one of Marvel’s more unique ones: set in Hong Kong, our sorcerer trio have a relatively small-time fight against Kaecilius and a couple of his lackeys, but what sets it apart is Strange’s use of the Eye of Agamotto, which means that the final showdown happens while everyone around the combatants goes backwards in time. It’s a neat trick that allows for more engagement than, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron’s mind-numbing onslaught of robots. The real kicker comes when Strange enters the Dark Dimension to go toe-to-toe with Dormammu—not with his magical prowess, but with his mind.
The actual logistics of this sequence don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny (mostly because it’s never really established what the Dark Dimension actually is), but Strange annoying Dormammu to defeat via a time loop and endless repetitions of, “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” is certainly a first for the MCU, and maybe cinema as a whole. (It even became a meme!) If the rest of Doctor Strange had shown the originality it does in its finale, the film would be among the best. As it is, there are brief flashes of brilliance amidst an otherwise rote Marvel story that pretends to be breaking new ground.
To be fair, origin stories are hard. Marvel is at its best when playing in an already-established sandbox, playing its characters off each other and letting them marinate in their interwoven world, but it’s much harder to come out of the gate swinging when so much of your success relies on crossovers and cameos (if that’s a good thing on a storytelling level, well…); if the MCU is a glorified television show, origin stories are a bit like bottle episodes, and like bottle episodes, they don’t always work. Doctor Strange is far from bad, and indeed has some stellar moments, but it’s not exactly memorable, either, though it should have had every right to be.
Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
Well, uh, that’s another Infinity Stone. Cool.
Christine Palmer goes by the Night Nurse in the comics, a moniker which goes to the Netflix character Claire Temple in the MCU, portrayed by Rosario Dawson (if we’re still counting the Netflix shows as canon, that is, but with the rumored appearances of Charlie Cox in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Vincent D’Onofrio in Disney+’s Hawkeye, it seems we are).
There were rumors flying that one of the potential patients Strange turns down was Captain Marvel, though this turned out not to be the case.
“This universe is only one of an infinite number,” the Ancient One says. You could even say that there’s a multiverse of madness out there!
Anna’s Favorite Scene: Strange and the Ancient One conversing on the astral plane while the latter lays dying on an operating table, but runner up is Strange and Kaecilius’ minion duking it out on the astral plane while Christine operates on Strange in reality.
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Buckle up for some hot takes (mostly, that Iron Man 3 rocks).
“You know who I am.”
That’s the refrain that constantly dogs Iron Man 3: it’s written glibly by Tony Stark on a nametag in 1999, said by him in the voiceover that frames the film, broadcast by the supposed Mandarin as he threatens more terrorist attacks. And, of course, three movies in, we do know Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and so does everyone else, from kids in a restaurant to a local news cameraman. He’s an even greater celebrity than he was in his pre-Iron Man days: he was the hero in The Avengers’ Battle of New York, after all. He’s the biggest box office draw since the Skywalkers, the best thing since sliced bread. Everyone knows Iron Man, whether you’re a citizen in the MCU’s world or our very own flesh and blood reality.
“You know who I am,” but this movie spends most of its runtime challenging that. We know Iron Man, but what of Tony, when you strip him down to his bare essentials? Who does he become? That’s the question at the heart of Iron Man 3, tackled in its own superhero movie way. Another question haunting the movie: how do you follow The Avengers, a movie that—like it or not—forever changed the cultural landscape? (Or, at the very least, altered for quite some time.) The door has been blown open in the cultural consciousness, and also in the MCU, where the populace has been rudely exposed to aliens and a god flying around with a hammer. Iron Man 3 addresses all these questions by, well, mostly ignoring them. The Avengers went big, so this goes small. Of course, there are superheroes beating up bad guys and plenty of cheap tricks and cheesy one-liners (“Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography,” as Tony says), but our titular hero spends most of this movie without his armor and without a superhero team to back him up.
On the one hand, this is where the interconnected nature of the MCU starts to first show some of its fundamental flaws: logistically, not every superhero actor can show up in every movie. But if Tony is dealing with a terrorist threat, why don’t the other members of the Avengers show up? Where is Captain America, who could help? Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye? On the other hand, isolating Tony from his super friends and even his own suit makes for a better movie, one more interested in Tony than his other metal persona (though if you want to see Iron Man blow stuff up, there’s plenty of that, too).
Of course, Iron Man 3 doesn’t start with Tony separated from his suit, but just the opposite: since the events of The Avengers (where, to remind you, aliens came out of a wormhole in the sky and New York would have gotten nuked if Tony hadn’t made the sacrifice play and flown said nuke through said wormhole), Tony has been driven even deeper into his obsessive tendencies and holes himself up in his workshop, making new suits and avoiding sleep. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the end of her rope as she watches Tony circle the drain of self-destruction again, a different kind of destruction than Iron Man 2 but destruction nonetheless. Tony’s not sleeping, he’s having anxiety attacks at the mere mention of New York, he inadvertently sics a suit on Pepper. Things aren’t going great.
Tony’s declining mental state isn’t helped by the terrorist attacks going on lately, apparently carried out by a man styling himself as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley), who sounds like John Goodman and Mick Rory had a child. Tony’s buddy Rhodey (Don Cheadle) gets rebranded as Iron Patriot, his own suit getting a nice new paint job to rally our crestfallen American spirits, and Tony stays to the sidelines: “It’s American business,” Rhodey tells him, though seeing as all our superheroes seem to have originated from or at least allied with America, the division between superhero business and American business is faint at best. Marvel doesn’t ever address this except obliquely, leaving any commentary on American exceptionalism to things like Watchmen and The Boys—which is probably for the best, considering Marvel’s lack of subtlety. (Though I don’t think anyone would call The Boys subtle…)
Regardless, Tony leaves this particular issue to the US military until former bodyguard/current head of security for Stark Industries and Downton Abbey fan Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, no longer in the director’s chair but still producing) gets caught up in this plot and injured. Then it becomes personal: Tony provokes the Mandarin, the Mandarin’s people destroy Tony’s house, and Tony, presumed dead, ends up in Tennessee with a broken suit.
This would-be tale of woe is offset by a) the fact that this is a Marvel movie, so it’s probably not going to be too much of a downer, and b) writer and director Shane Black’s comedic sensibilities. (The movie is also set at Christmastime, a period that Black is rather fond of.) It’s got quips and banter for days, but they have a bit of a rougher edge to it than most MCU entries: upon landing in Tennessee, Tony meets precocious child Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins); upon learning that Harley’s dad left the family six years ago, Tony replies, “Dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it.”
For a big superhero movie, it seems odd that the best scenes would be set in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, but Harley and Tony make for a great comedic duo as Tony tries to sniff out the Mandarin’s origins. Kids can certainly be a hindrance in films and tend to be cloying and/or annoying, but Shane Black eschews those pitfalls (as he does in The Nice Guys) and makes Harley endearing more than anything else, his clear-eyed optimism a good foil for Tony’s snark and cynicism.
Tony eventually connects the Mandarin plot back to businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whom Tony had rebuffed at a New Year’s party back in 1999, giving Killian a thirst for revenge and power. Killian, it turns out, created the character of “The Mandarin” and hired actor Trevor Slattery to portray him; the Mandarin conveniently serves as a scapegoat for the explosions Killian’s experiments with the regenerative drug Extremis causes. (The fact that most of these explosions are caused by disabled veterans who volunteered for this drug in order to regrow a limb is largely ignored, though it presents a potentially intriguing take on our treatment of veterans. However, the movie opts to sidestep this entirely by not addressing it.)
The villains of Iron Man 3 are, to put it lightly, controversial. The Mandarin twist—where the imposing terrorist figure is an actor, and the real villain is the corporate suit—has continued to be a sore spot for fans, largely those already familiar with Marvel comics, who complain that Iron Man 3 wasted an iconic villain, that the twist was juvenile, that it was an insult to the fans, etc. However, the Mandarin of the comics that fans were apparently foaming at the mouth to see has a rather sticky legacy, as the original Fu Manchu-type character plays on ideas of yellow peril; this solution neatly avoids those issues—or perhaps it lampshades them, seeing as Killian purposely orchestrates the Mandarin’s appearance to prey on fear of a vague Middle Eastern “other.” As he says, “Ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety has kind of had its day.” Killian aiming to rile up the military-industrial complex by manipulating Western iconography and conjuring imagined, otherized threats dressed in non-Western clothing all so he can fill his own coffers is far more interesting than a character whose origins are rooted in actual racist caricatures.
Unfortunately, Killian himself, though played with a sinister suaveness by Pearce, is a bit too thinly sketched to handle the weight the Mandarin twist dumps on him. Had Killian’s motivations been more fleshed out, or his threat greater than breathing fire (yes, that happens), the twist might have been better received even by the comic fanboys. (Pepper, it should be noted, is the one to land the final blow on Killian, taking her revenge on him for nonconsensually injecting her with dangerous drugs. This marks the third Iron Man villain Pepper has dispatched: she was the one who powers up the arc reactor that killed Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, alerts the authorities to Justin Hammer’s illegal tendencies in Iron Man 2, and here directly kills Killian. Don’t get on her bad side.)
Initially, Killian wasn’t even the main villain: that task instead fell to Rebecca Hall, though whether Hall’s character was a female version of Killian or the character she would go on to play, Maya Hansen, remains unclear. However, this was nixed when a call from Marvel corporate came and informed Shane Black that a female villain wouldn’t sell toys, and therefore the villain had to be a man.
While Black says he doesn’t know who exactly placed the order, common speculation lands the blame at Ike Perlmutter’s feet. Perlmutter’s storied history with Marvel includes claiming that all Black people look alike and pushing back against the characters of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, so while this is all speculation, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to blame Perlmutter, at least in some capacity; in fact, Perlmutter is known to have limited Black Widow action figures for the same reason. (Black Panther and Captain Marvel would only get made after Perlmutter had been pushed away from Marvel Studios.) Rebecca Hall has voiced frustration at last minute changes to her character that made Maya little more than a footnote in the film, and given Killian’s just-okay-ness as a villain, more Maya could have been a welcome addition.
But a villain change isn’t the only alteration made to Iron Man 3 to appease investors and audiences (though, for the record, changing a villain’s gender because of toy sales is both frustrating and imbecilic). A different version of Iron Man 3 played in China, featuring Chinese actors Fan Bingbing and Xuqei Wang (only the latter appears in the film outside of China), though the added scenes largely serve as product placement. Apparently, there were even discussions around making Harley Chinese to flatter Xi Jinping. More diversity, especially within Marvel, is always welcome, but perhaps it’s better to have diversity to more accurately represent our current world rather than solely to appease a, uh, problematic figure, to say the least. Marvel has consistently courted China’s market in such a way that their films suffer for it, from Iron Man 3 to Doctor Strange, where Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One, typically portrayed as Tibetan, so as not to ruffle any Chinese feathers.
Interestingly, Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, ostensibly a win for the China market as it features Chinese actors and is at least partially set within China, has received pushback for everything ranging from accusations of stereotyping to star Simu Liu not being attractive enough by Chinese standards, with some claiming that he looks too Western. (Liu was born in China but raised in Canada.) Director Chloé Zhao’s upcoming Eternals also faces an uphill battle, with Zhao’s critical comments on China (where she was born) potentially haunting her box office. Whether Marvel will take these setbacks in stride or try once more to appease remains to be seen.
Even with all this drama behind the camera, Iron Man 3’s finished product remains the best Iron Man film, even if it is a bit uneven. (Come for me with pitchforks, I beg you.) While at the time the first Iron Man was a fresh phenomenon, its novelty wears off after 20-plus similar films; Iron Man 3’s character-driven focus (character-driven for a big superhero movie, I should amend) gives it an edge over its predecessor; now that Tony has been established, the films can get meatier. Giving Tony PTSD and anxiety from the Battle of New York undercuts all Tony’s fake swagger, the persona that he crafts around himself like his suits; we are reminded that he is, at his core, painfully human, even if he is a superhero. When Harley asks for Tony’s name, he simply says, “The mechanic. Tony.” No big press conferences, no Stark Expo, just a mechanic trying to build things, trying to fix things. One of the best scenes comes from Tony assembling a prototype Iron Man repulsor from various items at a hardware store, fashioning everyday objects into something better. He doesn’t need the suit to be Iron Man.
Too bad Joss Whedon will toss much of this characterization out of the window in Avengers: Age of Ultron (more on that later), but that’s the thing with comic books and their adaptations: they’re all about what Stan Lee called “the illusion of change.” Robert Downey Jr. was still game for more films, so Tony has to bring his suits back. Still, Iron Man 3 remains perhaps the most pivotal movie for Tony’s journey and certainly the one that best defines his character, and that vaults it above its peers (as does the post-credits scene, because it’s just fun).
Oh, sure, there’s an argument to be made about the problems of latching onto a certain character at the expense of the rest of the film, and how that drags us a bit too close to the hideously toxic world of stan culture. There’s no doubt that Iron Man 3 zigs and zags a bit, but in a cinematic universe where every film ends with some big bad evil guy fight scenes, it’s the smaller moments that make something stand out, and that’s what puts Iron Man 3 above its fellows, if only slightly.
Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
The response to the Mandarin twist was bad enough that Marvel made a short in 2014, All Hail the King, which had Trevor Slattery taken by a “real” member of the Ten Rings who threatened to bring him to the “real” Mandarin. (Cowing to angry fans almost never works out, and while the short is fun, its existence is, well, stupid.) The Ten Rings and the “real” Mandarin, this time played by Tony Leung, will (re)appear in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
This marks the first verbal mention of Roxxon in the MCU. In the comics, Roxxon Corporation is a nefarious oil company that’s usually up to no good. In the MCU, its logo was shown in Iron Man and Iron Man 2; it doesn’t get namedropped until here. It’s mentioned in Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil and other members of Marvel’s now-apparently-forgotten non-Disney+ TV legacy. Roxxcart, presumably an offshoot of Roxxon, appears in the Disney+ show Loki.
Extremis is used in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., most notably on Bill Paxton’s John Garrett.
Not groundwork, but there was a lot of speculation that Harley would go on to become Iron Lad; this hasn’t happened yet, but his appearance at Tony’s funeral in Endgame at least proved Marvel hasn’t completely forgotten about him. We can pretty safely rule out Iron Lad, however, seeing as Iron Lad is actually a young version of Kang the Conqueror, and Jonathan Majors plays Kang, who (spoilers?) first appears in Loki.
Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony has a panic attack on the side of the road and Harley has to bring him back down to earth. “You’re a mechanic, right? Why don’t you just build something?” Great acting, great character work, great scene.
Sometimes the smallest painting in a gallery or museum is the one that moves you most, the one you find yourself thinking about more than any large piece you might also have come across. Similarly, size doesn’t necessarily correlate with impact at the movies. The Souvenir, director Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her 2013 feature Exhibition, may be one of the smallest movies exhibited in Seattle theatres by certain measures, but it’s a masterpiece whose scale belies its immense, wrenching beauty.
Set in 1980s Britain, it portrays the toxic relationship between Julie, an earnest but timid film student from an upper middle class family, played with magnificent, deeply moving nuance by relative newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne (the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother), and Anthony (Tom Burke, also very good), pretentious, manipulative, and unbeknownst to Julie when they get together, a heroin addict.
Hogg elides the sensationalism that premise might ordinarily entail. She approaches her main two characters and their relationship elliptically, attuned with supreme sensitivity to how moments of no great size – afternoon tea, dinners with their parents – reveal the contours of Julie’s and Anthony’s relationship, and, in particular, Julie’s naïveté and ignorance of Anthony’s selfishness and deceit.
Hogg demonstrated a keen eye for striking compositions in Exhibition (that movie also took art and a dysfunctional relationship as its subject matter, albeit with a very different, absurdly comic tone) but her work in The Souvenir with cinematographer David Raedeker is exceptional, and consistently so. The images are grainy, the color palette muted. Hogg shoots from various angles and distances (her camera’s typically fixed) to best allow the emotion implied by Byrne’s gestures and mannerisms – her clutching a stuffed animal, her struggling to articulate the idea behind her film – to reverberate within the frame. A tiled mirror in Julie’s flat is often used quite effectively, as are other reflective surfaces – puddles, windows – but the occasional landscape shots are equally breathtaking.
A work of supremely intelligent restraint, The Souvenir may be deemed a small movie, but it’s an essential one.
Taylor Baker: Thanks for having me, Jim! This has been a long time coming. I’m glad we’re finally able to sync up for a discussion.
Jim: Agreed. I’ve been meaning to have you on for a while now, since you co-host the Drink in the Movies podcast with Michael Clawson, my most frequent guest. In fact, I just completed a talk with Michael a couple weeks ago, so it’s fitting to have you on next.
Taylor: I’ve shamefully only seen one film out of the six that you two have discussed, that one being Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Your most recent discussion has inspired me to watch L’humanité. Dumont is another longtime blind spot in my viewing and your characterization of him has piqued my interest a great deal.
Jim: I hope you do. Dumont is a challenge, even for those who, like myself, love every frame.
You’ve brought Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes to talk about. Though I’m a fan of Argentine cinema, his films have been a blind spot of my own, until now. Why did you choose this film to discuss? What’s your background with it, and with Campanella’s work in general?
Taylor: As an adamant lover of mainstream challenging filmmakers Aronofsky, Zahler, and Noé I’m hopeful and intrigued!
Thank you for allowing me the courtesy of dumping one of my longtime loves on your doorstep. I’ve always intended to engage with it again but the right timing never seemed to occur. Shortly after receiving your invitation I realized that this would be a wonderful way to grapple with both the film and my feelings toward it.The addition of Felix Monti as cinematographer of both The Secret in Their Eyes and The Holy Girl, a Martel film you rate quite highly on Letterboxd, also made me feel that this would at bare minimum be a fruitful discussion for each of us. The Secret in Their Eyes was brought to my attention in a podcast (I believe it was called Nerdist at the time and is now ID10T) with Jon Favreau around 2014, in which he postulated that it may be his favorite film. At that recommendation I sought out the film, reacted very strongly during that single viewing, felt that affection continuously grow, and now we’re here talking about it! I’ve only dipped my toe into Campanella’s oeuvre once since The Secret in Their Eyes. This last December his newest film El cuento de las comadrejas (The Weasel’s Tale) finally had a North American release, and Graciela Borges the “star” of the picture delivered one of my favorite performances of the year 2020. The film itself is a delight, that I’d recommend to anyone with a penchant for whodunnits that have a comedic tone.
Jim: I’ll keep it in mind. I didn’t make the Monti connection between The Secret in Their Eyes and The Holy Girl. Good eye. You’re right; I love Martel.
So let’s jump into it. Could you give a brief synopsis of the film? Where and when do we find ourselves as the story commences? Who are the main characters, what are they doing, and what do they hope to find?
Taylor: Absolutely! As it stands, I’m still within 24 hours of completing the film for the first time in years as well as the novel on which it is based. There are a number of minor and major differences between the two. I’m sure I’ll delve into a handful of those later (the stadium scene is not in the book for instance), if I misspeak please correct me as the two are blending a bit.
The film revolves around Benjamin Esposito (played by Ricardo Darin), a retired legal counselor with a longstanding and unacted-upon love for Judge Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) and the proverbial “one last case” that all great men with long careers in criminal justice seem to have. Those two items, the final case and the unacted upon love–invite the title of The Secret in Their Eyes quite clearly. Whether the looks between Hastings and Esposito or Isidoro Gomez to Liliana Coloto. The motif, which I think is a strong one, is laid bare quickly for all. And at some level that is the entirety of the point of the story, the meaning in those looks, and where the differences between them lie.
As the film begins, we are introduced to the oldest timeline in this dually progressing narrative. The starting images are a brutal flashback of the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo, notably her first role in a film). This case is the center of our narrative, and the life of our protagonist as far as we see it in the film. We then quickly skirt to Esposito; the year is 1999 and it is the day of his retirement. He fittingly avoids his own retirement party, and inquires with Hastings about being loaned out his old typewriter, with an A key that doesn’t work. With this typewriter in hand, he can properly pursue being a novelist. His writing of the story is our backdrop to the simultaneous timeline, and though a common refrain in these sorts of mysteries. One that I found worked elegantly here, mostly. It seems that in this act of reflection Esposito is searching for peace. Morales on the other hand, desires justice.
Jim: I’m of two minds about the effectiveness of the “novel” that Esposito is writing. What does it contribute to the film’s narrative structure? It’s a useful device for externalizing Esposito’s internal struggle about how to cope with his feelings for his old boss Irene, and how those feelings are entangled with his obsessions about the old Morales case. But I can’t help thinking nothing would be lost if it were entirely excised. Not to mention how obviously short it is, which the “old” Morales points out. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but it never means as much to the story as it seems Campanella wants it to mean. I do like the earliest scenes of him writing it in his notebook, before he reacquires the clunky typewriter. When he tries to capture his feelings for Irene, he rips the pages out and crumples them up, clearly dissatisfied, but when he tries to describe what he imagines was the scene between Liliana and Morales during their final morning together, and is equally as unsatisfied, he doesn’t tear the page out, but removes it tenderly. He’s frustrated with his renditions of both, but there’s a reverence for the details of the Morales story he doesn’t feel for his own, which is, of course, in important point of tension in the film as a whole.
But to back up a bit, I have to say I really enjoyed this film, and thank you for bringing into the conversation. Crime dramas aren’t my thing at all, but Campanella brings a sensitivity to this that’s extraordinary, which he portrays so well in the looks the characters exchange. There’s a darkness to this film I love, a density formed by the compression of time and lapasión, of history, and the romance history grinds beneath its heel.
Speaking of history, the film is both backgrounded and foregrounded by the Dirty War in the 1970s, of which Argentina was a part. As Esposito and his collegue Sandoval zero in on Liliana’s murderer, some of the ugliness of this time in Argentina’s history comes directly into play. Since Lucrecia Martel and other Argentine directors have educated me to the insidious effects of that time on the psyche of all Argentinians, I recognized it right away. Do you think that to viewers who aren’t aware of it, like we Americans, it’s handled effectively?
Taylor: Your point on excising the framing device is well taken. I suspect that at its removal the dual timeline of the narrative would then not be in play as a consequence. Such a seismic shift from the source material I think (though we’ll never really know) would prove fatal to the many aspects of the narrative that do work in this presentation. Though it can be boiled down to a framing device I think it also allows a point of observation to the viewer on the thematic and personal content that is complimentary. We don’t just straddle years here but decades and a sequential procedural through these events in that way would underscore a lot of the pieces and pacing choices that moved me and kept me engrossed. On the other side of the book, I don’t think Campanella was precious with the source material so much as the feel and the events. A lot of choices he made I find to be astute reinterpretations of the narrative that takes largely uncinematic material (internal narration to the reader) and reappraises it to be both visually engaging and propulsive. At a basic level I just don’t see how you can tell the story in the novel that I read without using the device. It is the entire foundation the project is built on. Being able to jog between those decades without even a label of what year it is, is very, very rare. At least in my viewing habits. I’d be much less interested in a beat-by-beat timeline procedural of these lived events than the story presented here.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Ah yes, la pasión! It’s such a basic premise to provide to characters but so rich and universal. A dense darkness is found in so many frames of the film. One of the most memorable of which for me is a scene near the end in the shed in which Morales, Esposito, and Gomez are in frame simultaneously. The pathos each character walks into that frame with, their entangled lives, their shared unhappiness. The despair of that shadow cast room, with its deep focus and fuzzy edges is tangible. Something you could practically take a scoop of. I will say “certain” crime dramas are very much my thing. This, Mosaic, Millennium, and Unsane to name a few are in that stratosphere of excellence in this psychological crime drama subgenre.
Great question. Obviously, I have a subjective reaction here that may be off. But so far as I can tell rather than make the Dirty War a pointed fulcrum of the inexcusable abusive behavior of the Argentine government, Campanella instead goes for a broader visually transitive abuse. Letting the viewer feel the unrest on the periphery of society, allowing us to see the kill squads in action in Sandoval’s death, the racism exhibited in the beating of the innocent construction workers, and the depth of corruption in the subsequent freeing of Gomez after they’d finally put him away. That is a long way of saying I think he handled it most effectively because he prioritized allowing us to “feel” it, rather than making us “know” it. Do you think it was handled well?
Jim: Generally, yes, but I wonder how much Americans, especially, understand the concept of state-sponsored terror. Though the film doesn’t extend it out as far, I read Gomez as someone who’s been on the government payroll since before the events of the film. Perhaps the book is more explicit about this. The point is that Gomez, the suspect whom Esposito, Sandoval, and Hasting reel in for the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto, is a regime goon. It embarrasses the government that he’s been revealed. The point isn’t whether he committed the crime or not, because that’s a forgone conclusion at the point he whips his dick out and declares his dominance, but whether he manages to save his own skin after he’s hung out to dry. The extent of dehumanization here is alarming. So to answer your question, I think the monsters are evident enough, though the system that enables them remains mostly faceless, except for Romano – the most crooked judge – who lets Gomez go. Romano’s a slick, memorable character, when he should be a lot scarier, and more forgettable. His smirks are too cute, his retorts too clever, for such a stupid, craven man. But Campanella leans more toward theatricality than naturalism, a point I do find tiresome with certain characters.
To your first point above, I see no reason why the dual timeline would be impossible without Esposito’s novel. Plenty of films have dual timelines, with no characters writing novels. But yeah, if it’s part of the film’s source material, so be it. As I see it, it’s not so much a diminution as an insignificant excess.
But let’s stick with Gomez. Esposito and Sandoval defy judge Fortuna’s command not to pursue Gomez, and visit the town of Chivilcoy, where they steal their way into Gomez’s mother’s home, looking for evidence. It’s easily the funniest segment of the film, though I do have to say that Campanella keeps an effective balance between the horrible and the humorous throughout. The only useful thing they find are some letters written from Gomez to his mother, the portent of which eludes them for days, until Sandoval divines from them Gomez’s pasión for football, or soccer. This leads us to the film’s most astonishing episode of cinematic bravura, at the stadium. Set up this scene for me, Taylor. It is pretty singularly amazing, the point on which the entire narrative turns.
Taylor: First I should elucidate in greater detail some of the background of Gomez’s release. I can see how with only the film to lean on you would get that feeling. Gomez took a construction job at a 20 floor building in Buenos Aires, to follow Liliana into the city. His murder of her is unclear in it’s premeditation but of the rape one can have no doubt. He came to the city specifically to commit that atrocity. If you recall our previous interaction with Romano, in which Esposito confronts him and the two are held back from fighting by a crowd of people. Esposito tells Romano he is going to report him, for ordering the beatings of two innocent workers doing a job at Liliana’s neighbors apartment. He files that complaint and Romano is removed from his position as Judge. But he has a decorated uncle from the army in his family. Instead of being destitute Romano is relocated to head up a position in State Intelligence. In this new position he can continue to abuse power, but this time unchecked and without a way for formal reprisal. As time goes on eventually Gomez surfaces in the Argentine prison system, and Romano has a chance to get even with Esposito. He can use a piece of legislation to free a political prisoner (due to the nature of corruption he can change anyone in the prison system to the designated inmate status to allow them to be released into his employ.). Thus he frees the guilty man in the case that caused his fall from grace. Not for any reason other than to get even with that son of a bitch Esposito. This is also a precursor to the death of Sandoval, which directly correlates with when Morales kidnaps Gomez. Romano is sure that Esposito has killed him to get back at Romano and thus orders a kill squad to his apartment. I do like the depiction of evil being a man that you would have a hard time picking out a lineup on the suspicion of war crimes at first glance. Though theatrical I think there’s a truth there of how these people are perceived while at the heights of their power. Duterte’s current regime springs to mind with this type of maniacal whimsy.
Oh boy, you’re putting a lot of responsibility in my fingertips. Alright as you mentioned Sandoval is at a local watering hole with the stolen evidence, Esposito bursts into the bar yelling at him for this. Sandoval urges him to calm down, and when he’s finally quieted down, he introduces Esposito to another denizen of this local haunt. Whom he inquires the meaning of the names in the letters that Gomez had written. This upstanding notary immediately begins to recount the position and year of the footballers. Sandoval and Esposito now seemingly know how they will locate Gomez, at the Tomas Duco Stadium. The scene begins at night flying over Buenos Aires with a looming helicopter shot that dips through thin clouds and alights on a play on the football (soccer for your American readers) pitch. An attempt on goal is made and it bounces off the crossbar, our camera swoops deeper and while looking 90 degrees down directly our editor Campanella himself seamlessly blends from a helicopter shot to a robotic arm crane shot that zooms along the faces of an enamored crowd. If you watch closely you can see a CG transition as the camera flips during this scene. This robotic arm crane shot switches to a handheld camera as we land between Esposito and Sandoval. They are frustrated, and finger the wrong man. As they walk back to their spots the camera almost accidentally profiles a close up of Gomez’s face on the right portion of the screen and we see in the deeper frame Esposito as he realizes it’s him. They charge back toward the camera, a goal is scored, the handheld camera shakes raucously with the crowd and now we’re in a proper chase. This introduces a long tracking shot with no break mainly following Sandoval in pursuit of Gomez. There are a handful of things I absolutely love here, firstly the confrontation with Baez as a practical way for Javier Godino, who plays Gomez, to reset and rest and for the cameraman himself to get a breather. The next is when we follow Gomez out of the bathroom after bashing Sandoval’s face on the wall and shoving Esposito into a corner. He runs down some steps and we see him in a beautifully performed deep shot confronted by police, he turns and runs back up, meeting the camera. Now he has to jump off this floor and as the camera swoops from one ledge to the other and pitches down 90 degrees again like the helicopter we see CG being used to stitch it together for one continuous-feeling shot. He falls and our cameraman subsequently falls behind him allowing the viewer to feel the drop and the chase physically. Gomez then runs onto the pitch and is tripped by a player before being placed under arrest at the end of a police baton. It’s an arresting sequence and one of my favorite extended scenes in all of cinema.
Jim: Right, it’s that point right after the camera passes over the end of the field and into the stadium, a direct 90 degrees down, where the splice is. It just makes sense, to transition during the blurry bit. But what’s remarkable about that sequence, to me anyhow, is how most of the bravura doesn’t steal the scene. The interior spaces of the characters, their thoughts and anxieties and relations to the hundreds of bodies circulating around them is always primary. Esposito’s urgency, Sandoval’s cunning, Gomez’s terror, the way each of them navigates the massive concrete structure, are all in advance of the film craft. All the amazing tech stuff is entirely in service of the experiences of the characters. It’s pretty beautiful. It makes me think of Noé.
I think there are three critical character angles any discussion of this film has to include, maybe even a fourth, if you include Sandoval. Esposito observes Irene, obviously, since he’s infatuated with her, but it’s through his eyes we also observe Morales. Sandoval is independent of Esposito’s perspective, it feels to me. He exists in his own right. Maybe that’s why his death, his murder, feels so devastating. Through his eyes, we were given an alternative to Esposito’s view. The film noticeably darkens after his death, and we’re alone with Benjamin.
Esposito’s infatuation with Irene, and its frustration, seems shaped by a class separation, which Esposito doesn’t dare bridge, even when Irene’s ardor is clear. The way class and politics dominates these peoples’ lives is tragic.
But more than Irene, Esposito is obsessed with Morales. I think Benjamin recognizes in Morales a tragic version of himself, an externalization of his own internal yearnings, except that both men mix up, and ultimately spoil, the point of mourning, as does all Argentina.
In the spaces between the principal characters, there are loads of metaphors about the nature of Argentine society specifically, and western cultures more generally. Did any of that stand out to you?
Taylor: That’s a great point. While the logistics and cinematography are entirely enamoring it is the interiority of these characters that draws us with such intent into the scene as it unfolds. And more specifically, it doesn’t overshadow but rather embellishes and brings out the feelings. Fascinating, you managed to make me love that scene even more. I resonate with your comment on Noé deeply. His camera choreography is second to none.
I have to largely agree with your comments here. I hate having to digress again, but just so you know where I’m coming from it’s extremely difficult to separate the characters in the book from the characters within the movie. And while they’re not “very” different, they are indeed different, as are quite a few crucial thematic points, and specific points that are hammered home. So restricting myself to just the film, I will say firstly that a large amount of the context of the class separation between Benjamin and Irene is lost on our American ears. Like so many Latin-based languages outside English, there is an enormous amount of information to be gleaned from the article preceding these spoken words between them as well in the word choices. To my ears this dance of class and rank that I know is present is entirely lost. As to deeper metaphors about society. I think outside the experience between Irene and Benjamin, the clearest illustrations are, the seeming expansion of wealth in Buenos Aires against the poverty of the working class, the racism in the region(which interestingly enough Campanella may have chosen to reframe, as in the book Morales was an around 6′ tall, fair haired fellow.), the systemic brutality that is only challenged by individuals in regards to the two men beaten to force them to confess, and perhaps most plainly the clear delineation of who has wealth and who doesn’t–by the mere ownership of a car. Was there anything I didn’t mention that stood out to you, or anything that I did that have you a keen read on?
Jim: I was particularly taken by the way Campanella arranges the big reveal scene, when Esposito discovers what Morales really did with Gomez. Earlier, Morales tells Esposito that he kidnapped and killed Gomez, but as Esposito reflects on this, including things Morales had told him years prior, he doubts the confession. Morales had told him back in ’74 (or thereabouts, I forget the exact years) he didn’t want Gomez executed, but that he wanted him to live “a life full of nothingness,” which is, ultimately, what Morales ensures Gomez suffers.
But what’s stunning about that scene, when Esposito discovers the homemade prison in which Morales has confined Gomez for twenty-five years, is the impression of them both being imprisoned, of Morales and Gomez sharing that confinement. Because isn’t that what happens in a society when the justice system collapses? Everyone, the victims, the criminals, the bystanders, the corrupt officials, everyone, becomes a prisoner, confined by guilt, shame, indifference and inhumanity. Innocence dies completely. Morales’ homemade prison is a physical manifestation of what each citizen experiences cognitively and emotionally. Everyone is locked away in their own heads (Morales refuses to talk to Gomez, which is the worst punishment), atoning silently for their collective sins. This has been a constant theme in stories out of places like Germany and the old Soviet-bloc countries. And I’ll bring up Lucrecia Martel again, Campanella’s fellow-Argentinian, whose two films La Cienaga and The Headless Woman are entirely about this theme, both set in an otherworldly, purgatory-like place where the inhabitants are hollowed-out and zombie-like, their humanity literally stripped away after so many years of living in a society where nothing matters except survival. “A life full of nothingness” indeed.
I do want to say a few words about Sandoval, too, Esposito’s drunken compatriot and fellow clerk. I’m sure there’s much about him I’m not getting the cultural references to, but he’s clearly the rebel character, an unabashed anarchist who has little respect for the formal rules of the game. But he’s smart, honest, and honorable, all the things society would like to beat out of him. That he’s literally sacrificed (maybe even self-sacrificed), held up like an offering to a vengeful god, means as much to the gravity of this story as any other part. And he’s the comic relief. Sandoval is the smart, funny insubordinate, who cracks the case and pays for it with his life. I love Sandoval.
Take things where you want to, Taylor. I’ve been directing too much. Frame the film in the terms that best describe how it impresses you.
Taylor: It’s a brilliant shot, reminiscent of the depth of field chase scene when Gomez goes down the stairs briefly, your tens of feet away from the center of focus but have a particularly clear feeling evoked by the shot. The lighting, sound design, and physical acting each echo back at the viewer a depth of despair. Not one that either man is enacting on the other but despair for each, at the sense of this is what it’s come to. And our stenographer Esposito, clearly affected by the horror, but not party to it. I don’t think I was particularly conscious of the macro metaphor in play there as I was so caught up with the interiority of each character. This is juicy. I need to ruminate on it further.
I too love Sandoval. He frequently goes where Esposito can’t and comes back with the knowledge, or pushes him over the edge in ways that he wouldn’t go otherwise. Such as the comedic theft from Gomez’s mother that you previously referenced. Moving both Esposito forward and the case along despite his personal problems and demons. An interesting anecdote on the topic of Sandoval would be that originally the confrontation with Gomez in which he bares himself and screams that he did it while interrogated was originally performed by a very, very, very drunken Sandoval against Esposito’s will. The nuances to the changes in the adapted screenplay are something I haven’t unlocked yet. There’s something deeper than just “this works better in a movie” going on. There’s clear choices Campanella made to get at a point that partially eludes me.
I’d like to spend some time addressing the immaculate location shooting. There’s not one instance of disbelief at the authenticity of what I’m viewing. Everything appears to be tangible. These landmarks each have meaning after the viewing too, which is somewhat unique. We were just talking about that shed and the look of those homemade prison bars. The stadium and voluminous concrete structure, metaphorical in and of itself but especially in context to the Dirty War. In which many citizens are watching on while a few men fight to win a game on a field, which is eventually where our arrest takes place. From the grimy night time bar, to the looming pillars and marble slab floors of the court. It’s just background, but its reliability begets a deeper trust in the very image. A magnitude, a heft belongs to the film through these locations and their incorporation to the body of the film.
And I think we must address the maestro, Campanella himself. The Secret in Their Eyes sits as the most prominent achievement in his oeuvre by far. Neither before or since has he made a film that resonated so deeply at home and outside of Argentina. None have had the prominent staggering bravura of the stadium scene. He Directs, Writes (adapted screenplay), Produces, and serves as Editor (for the first and only time in his entire career here). Every single drop of the film we see has gone through his hands in different forms and at different levels. It feels sculpted to me, hand crafted, and lovingly stitched. I found the editing in the film to be tremendous, at times fascinating. I don’t really know how to contextualize such great potential from him as an editor, being put aside entirely. It seems to me he is dedicated first and foremost to storytelling and if you have exhibited greatness with one of those tools it’s odd to me that he would put it down. Is there anything here you want to expound on or help me make sense of here?
Jim: The editing really is excellent, I agree. I’ll tell you, before I watched the film the first time, I read the plot summary at Wikipedia. It overwhelmed me a little, with all these characters and timelines and history and various moving parts, and it worried me a little, thinking the film would be a confusing jumble. But a lot of credit, if not all of it, has to go to the editing for crafting a fluid path through all those elements, so that I never felt lost, or at least not for very long. It’s quite an achievement.
The locations and sets are, like you say, entirely authentic. The massive, sublime quality of the stadium, the train station, and the courthouse building are breathtaking; they miniaturize the people inside them. I don’t know how intentional it is or what to take from it, but the architecture dwarfs the people, perhaps as a reinforcement of the other oppressive and diminishing forces in the story. There’s a scene where Esposito is speaking with Irene, while an intern lurks nearby, waiting to report something to Benjamin. They’re standing on a mezzanine of the courthouse, overlooking the cavernous atrium at its center. Right behind them is an enormous, hulking base of a single column – merely the base of only one of many columns – on the other side of which the intern waits, and it lends this palpable sense of mass and gravity pressing down and looming over the characters’ tiny selves. It evokes an awesome sense of solemnity.
Provided the perfect score you award this film at Letterboxd, maybe you’ll have nothing to answer this with, but is there anything in the film you don’t like, or find deficient?
Taylor: That’s interesting. You’re right, though our “heroic” main characters are at some level larger than life, the masses are miniature. I think you’re really onto something there. I have to say a lot of the non-primary side characters were miniaturized in the novel as well. I’m sure there’s a choice Campanella made there specifically to evoke the feeling you’re referencing. The subjectivity of importance literally being contrasted by their diminution next to a column. A metaphor toward impermanence, and the drop in the bucket this case is. Like using a pail to slow the Titanic from sinking.
A bit off topic but one of my favorite things in this story is how Sandoval sews together the case files to be bound. It’s this little detail that informs us of a process, his role in the building, and visually transmits the feeling of sewing a cold case shut.
For clarity I should specify at least this range of score. When I use a 5 on Letterboxd it’s not necessarily perfect. I probably only have around 3 ‘perfect’ films, I’d have to double check. Anything between 95-100/100 I translate to 5 stars. The Secret in Their Eyes is around a 95-96 for me upon rewatch. I love the question; I’ve been thinking about this since last Friday. I don’t think there’s anything I truly dislike. On the topic of deficiencies though, yes. I think there are at least several. Here’s a few that have come to mind.
1. I think that some of the clarity of who’s who in the courthouse in the first third of the film is not as tight as it could be to provide clarity.
2. I really, really wish we’d gotten to see Sandoval do the drunken interrogation as it was written in the novel, it was a buffoonish slapstick scene that I think would have translated in these performers’ hands into something really special.
3. The transference of city to countryside could have been a bit more experiential to the viewer, I tend to like it when a film “feels” like it took you somewhere new and different. That didn’t really happen here, even when we’re at the pivotal scene at the end it didn’t feel tangible just how far away from the city we were. The same goes for ‘where’ the stadium is, ‘where’ the scene of the crime is, etc.
4. I’d have liked to see Esposito file the report on Romano, that sequence in particular for the weight it has doesn’t build as cleanly as I would like. If Campanella could have shot it as a multilayered scene without telegraphing the importance of the moment, I think that would have paid dividends in grounding us into the rigmarole this entire system is subject to. Rather than just let the nameless cases sit in piles, we could have seen one besides our central case be made to contextualize the near hopelessness they’re drowning in.
5. Lastly, there’s something off about the depiction of Hastings. She seems to be in a sort of uncanny valley of agency. More prop than person with interiority. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I simultaneously got to know her too well without really knowing her at all. For example, we get to know Sandoval’s haunts, his wife (who is understandably fed up with him and his antics), his apartment, etc. We know what Hasting’s office looks like, we see her in other locations but they don’t feel like her locations. She’s almost always secondary, never the dominant character foundational to the location being introduced.
Did you have any similar feelings? I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything you disliked or found deficient outside what I’ve listed as well.
Jim: Well, first I’ll start inside and endorse your last point. Look, a lot of films are guy films, and that’s fine. Campanella is very comfortable with all his male characters, the women not so much. Aside from Irene Hastings, there really aren’t any female characters, except Morales’ wife Liliana, Sandoval’s wife, and Gomez’s mother, all of whom are only representations of general female roles in society, not individuals. Again, that’s fine, but it does leave out the critical perspectives of fifty percent of the population. But then there’s Irene. As you say, Irene is never a complete character. She’s placeless and incidental. She’s only there to serve as a vessel for Benjamin’s various emotional torments. And that’s not fine, and is my biggest problem with the film. Irene Hasting’s is an important character, but it feels like every time the camera turns to her, it’s not to explore her, not to find out more about her, not to even recognize her as doing anything in the scene, except being a respondent to Esposito. The only time she seizes the action within a scene is during the interrogation, when she sexually intimidates Gomez. It’s not the best look.
But I don’t want to make too much of that. It’s an extraordinary film. Like a great many male directors, Campanella isn’t very good with female representation. I’m not gonna take it all down for that.
I have a little bit of a problem with the broadly over-dramatized script. Everything feels just a little too ripe and overplayed, but that’s probably just me. That interrogation scene is a prime example, as is the train station departure scene. The strings feel a little too strained there, as Campanella tries to squeeze out more consequence from a scene that it can realistically give. I could complain some about the aging effects, but it’s too common a problem.
The first time I watched it, I liked the compositional style of having something or someone partially foregrounded and out of focus, while the focus is on the middle-grounded subject. The second time I watched it, I realized how overused it is. It’s cool, but excessive.
It feels like we’re nearing the end, so I’ll let you wrap up talk about the film. Anything else on your mind about it?
Taylor: I too found the train scene forced. There’s simultaneously too much reverence toward the source material in making the train a more important part of the narrative and a lack of believability that these characters as we’ve seen them thus far, behaved in that way. I actually didn’t much mind the aging make-up, it did a swell job when the character is in the background. On close-up though, and especially with Morales it was noticeably off. I’m a sucker for this contrasted depth style of cinematography. While I agree it does at times feel overplayed, it just consistently looks damn good, and allows multiple reference points within the scene to be used effectively. I can appreciate the sentiment though.
There’s one lingering thing I’d regret not mentioning. The intimidation elevator scene with Hasting’s, Esposito, and Gomez. It’s played completely silent, and relies on exchanged looks and Hasting’s to transfer a sense of terror to the viewer. It cements the film’s tone without drawing more attention to itself than it needs, both in its execution and in that once it’s over it isn’t referenced within the film. It just is.
Thanks so much for having me and allowing me to bring this title. It’s been a great conversation to process my thoughts and refocus on it with intent. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I picked it back up. And to those reading that would like to watch The Secret in Their Eyes it’s currently available to rent from most VOD platforms.
Jim: Thanks for accepting the invitation! But before we wrap up, I want to give you the same opportunity I gave Michael last time to promote your favorite five films from 2020.
Taylor: I’d be delighted to share them, thanks! Top 5 in descending order:
5. J’Accuse or An Officer and a Spy (Roman Polanski)
An adaptation of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, two of my favorite performances of the year from actors Louis Garrel and Jean Dujardin. If one is able to separate art from artist, you’ll find a fantastic historical film. With lurid outdoor cinematography and a propulsive pace. At this time, I think it’s still unreleased in North America.
4. Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh)
Soderbergh’s flitting walk and talk built on improvised conversation, gorgeous cinematography, and delightful turns by Streep, Wiest, and Bergen. There’s not one bad performance, and it oozes breezy coolness. One of the most rewatchable films released in 2020 for me. It’s available on HBO Max.
3. Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie Macdonald)
I’m cheating here as Normal People is a limited series. But since it was in my top 5 on the show, I’ll include it here. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal play Marianne and Connell, two students who begin a complicated relationship in high school that morphs over the period of their early adulthood years. It’s one of the moving narratives I experienced in 2020, and continually find myself drawn back to its dramatic power and emotional gravitas. It’s available to stream on Hulu.
2. My Mexican Bretzel (Nuria Giménez)
My Mexican Bretzel is close to unexplainable, it weaves together home footage, diary entries, and clever sound design into something bigger than life and more personal than a true story. It’s one of my absolute favorite discoveries and continues to elude my abilities to explain it coherently. At this time, I believe it is unreleased in North America. It was briefly available on an independent film channel as part of Prime Video, but I’m unable to locate it there now.
1. Last and First Men (Jóhann Jóhannsson)
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Directorial Debut Last and First Men is an adaptation of noted Science Fiction writer Olaf Stapledon’s book by the same name. In which our species has evolved, gone off planet, and is attempting to communicate with us across millennia as they begin to go extinct in the hopes that with our actions in the past we can save them. The camera lingers on gargantuan concrete structures, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score evokes a well of emotionality, and Tilda Swinton’s almost otherworldly narration tells us of these ancestors’ lives and experiences. Closer to a Visual Album than a narrative feature, this is my most treasured experience with a screen from 2020, and something that I’ll never forget. Though sadly this is a posthumous release, it is a remarkably fitting headstone for Jóhannsson. A feeling I’m confident anyone who sees it will share. Available thru Physical Media purchases from European Amazon Sellers, but unavailable in North America currently.
Since Michael already pried 1-5 out of you, could you share your 6-10?
Jim: I really look forward to J’accuse. Louis never fails.
Six through ten? Sure. Ten is proudly Bruno Dumont’s last film Jeanne (Joan of Arc in the US), the weirdest take on that tale you’ll ever see. Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous so awed me when I saw it, I knew it would make the list, here at nine, about a teen romance developing and enduring in the middle of an absurd, but no less horrifying, wave of inexplicable terror. At eight is Justine Triet’s Sibyl, about an out-of-bounds psychotherapist. Black Bear was another pleasant surprise, from director Lawrence Michael Levine, starring Aubrey Plaza. Feverish and surreal, it’s a metatextual story about inspiration and the creative process that I really love, so it’s secure at seven. Six is Babyteeth, from Shannon Murphy, starring Eliza Scanlen, a girl with terminal cancer who isn’t dying the way some might prefer.
I really enjoyed talking with you about The Secret in Their Eyes, Taylor. Thanks for bringing it. Along with the Martel films I mentioned, I also want to recommend The Official Story, from Argentinian director Luis Puenzo. Written during the twilight of the right-wing dictatorship implied in The Secret in Their Eyes, it was filmed during the dawn of a recovering democracy, in the mid-‘80s. The title might suggest it’s a documentary, or adjacent, but it’s not. It’s the story of a teacher searching for the true identity of her adopted daughter. If Argentine cinema and history are of interest, do not miss it.
Thanks, Taylor. Lots of fun. We’ll have to do it again.
Taylor: So long, Jim! Thanks again for going through this one with me. Looks like I have some homework in Jeanne and Spontaneous. I loved Babyteeth too. Puenzo film is now on my Watchlist, sounds intriguing. I look forward to doing this again, be well!
The Secret in Their Eyes Trailer
The Secret in Their Eyes is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers.
An appetite for blood is exchanged for a lust of human culture. Written and instrumental, creators and sites of creation. The film begins with our characters Adam and Eve mirroring the vinyl Adam is listening to. Then the record stops and so does the rotation of the camera.
Only Lovers Left Alive appears to depict what life is like while the vampires are on the shelf, so to speak. Blood is acquired from sterile environments through social exchanges. Every encounter with a creature or plant elicits a hello and it’s Latin name from Eve’s lips, as if the creature is an old friend she’d expected to see again. Knowledge slips into Eve through her finger tips while Adam attempts to share and create through his own.
Adam believes he is truly alive and that the humans are zombies. Eve isn’t willing to consider it for a moment, belaboring on the rebirth of a location due to it’s quantity of water and the coming fire to push life north, to the waters edge. She knows that Adam is out of rotation and transverses the globe to get his world spinning again. The human world didn’t quit rotating, Adam did.
“Excellent, the name of Fibonacci.” Eve replies while booking her flight to see him. On the way back from Detroit she books under Daisy Buchanan of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Adam as Stephen Dedalus of James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Adam is in motion again but neither he nor Eve are steering their destiny. Now they are merely attempting to keep up.
This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Sound of Metal & Minari. Followed by the VIFF 2020 and NYFF 2020 Titles: Undine, Nomadland, Time, and The Human Voice.
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This week on the Podcast we discuss our 10 favorite films of 2020 so far, as well as hand out show awards for each of our Wounded Soldiers of the year, The Squanderies, Top Ensembles, Top Doc, Top 3 OST’s, Favorite Actor and Actress(Lead and Supporting), Top 3 Directorial Debuts, 3 Favorite Classic Discovery, and our Top Technically Beautiful Film.
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By ditching the phantasmagoric color that animated Argento’s beloved classic and foregrounding the political turmoil of late 1970s Germany, Guadagnino steeps his reimagining of Suspiria in reality, only to send it dancing into the depths of a beautifully twisted nightmare at the drop of a silver hook.
Call Me By Your Name‘s warm and inviting Italian countryside setting is a distant memory in the halls of the Markos Dance Academy, which feels more like a mausoleum than the home to a group of lithe, young, female dancers. With its labyrinthine corridors draped in greys, browns, and blacks, it’s cold and forbidding; hardly the atmosphere in which one can imagine feeling emboldened to perform with the kind of carnal and instinctual drive that Suzie Bannion does. As Suzie, Dakota Johnson’s physicality is tantalizing, and the razor sharp cross-cutting between one of her first dances and her fellow dancer Olga being contorted and folded like a pretzel is an unforgettable display of weaponized art.
Borrowing only the bones of the original, Guadagnino’s Suspiria is wholly his own. For all the death, rot, and decay that seems to sit beneath the dance floor, the film’s vision is new and fresh.
–Michael Clawson originally posted this review on Letterboxd 11/09/18