Secret in Their Eyes

The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2015) Mystery (STX) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Zoe Graham, Patrick Davis, Eileen Fogarty, Lyndon Smith, Kim Yarbrough, Mark Famiglietti, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, David Israel, Dennis Keiffer, Don Harvey, Glenn Davis, Walter Tabayoyong, Michael Tennant, Ho Sung Pak, Saige Donaldson. Directed by Billy Ray


The line between justice and vengeance is often a fine one. There are those that say that you can have one or the other but never both; there are others that say they go hand in hand. Either way, both are exceedingly hard to attain and in the pursuit of one, often one has to settle for the other. When what attains is vengeance, we often have to kill a little piece of ourselves in order to find it.

In the aftermath of 9-11, an elite counter-terrorism task force has been established in Los Angeles by multiple law enforcement agencies. District Attorney Martin Morales (Molina) heads up the team, and among his agents are partners Ray (Ejiofor) from the FBI and Jess (Roberts) from the L.A. District Attorney’s investigative team. In their crosshairs is a downtown mosque which is said to harbor a cleric who had intentions of taking the jihadist fight to the City of Angels.

When a body is found in a dumpster next to the mosque, red flags are sent up and Ray and Jess are sent to investigate. However, the grisly discovery is of Jess’ 18-year-old daughter Carolyn (Graham), a vivacious soul who had been getting ready to go to college in the fall. The discovery devastates the team. New assistant D.A. Claire (Kidman) is assigned the case and a suspect is quickly located. However, dead end upon dead end frustrates the team and eventually Ray figures out who really did it – an informant within the mosque itself (Cole). But he is being protected by powerful forces and is set free, only to disappear.

Thirteen years later, Ray – now working as a security consultant for the New York Mets – comes to Claire – now the District Attorney – with the startling news that Ray has located the long-missing suspect. Claire and Jess (who still works for the office) are reluctant to reopen old wounds but Ray is particularly obsessed with the case and in bringing the man who killed Jess’ daughter in to pay for his crime. But even now, there are obstacles in the way of finding peace for Ray, Jess – and Claire.

This is based on the 2009 Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film that won Best Foreign Language Film that year. While the plots are identical, some of the details have been changed which changes the dynamics of the newer film somewhat. Also you have three Oscar-caliber actors, all of whom who have won or at least been nominated, in the main parts.

Ejiofor is the central character and as he did in 12 Years a Slave he carries the movie on his broad shoulders. The scene in which he discovers the identity of the body in the dumpster is an incredible piece of work, although it is sadly unduplicated throughout the rest of the film. No, all three of the actors in the front deliver good, solid performances with moments of excellence. Roberts in particular has a haunted look that is most unlike any of her previous performances.

The problem here is that the low-key aspect of the film drains the energy from the audience. The pacing is extraordinarily slow and there were a number of scenes that I thought could have been trimmed if not excised. Ray also jumps in time between 2002 and 2015 and often the only way to tell what time period you’re observing is by the amount of gray in Ray’s hair. I occasionally found it confusing and hard to follow.

The overall atmosphere has a bit of a noir edge to it, just as the original did albeit with a Latin flavor. Transplanting the movie to Los Angeles robs it of that and indeed gives the movie an oddly generic quality – so many thrillers have been set in L.A. that there’s a been there-done that patina. That’s kind of disturbing and not in a good way.

While the ending is cathartic if a bit preposterous, it doesn’t save the audience from feeling that this is something they’ve seen before, even if you haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. Considering the abilities of the director and the talent of the cast, this is an extremely disappointing project that on paper should have been much better than it turned out to be. While it is still entertaining and I can recommend it solely on that basis, this is a movie that is haunted by the specter of what could have been.

REASONS TO GO: All three leads are fine actors. Cathartic. Noir-esque.
REASONS TO STAY: Surprisingly lethargic. Could have used some judicious editing. Time jumping can be confusing (keep an eye on the actors’ hair for clues).
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexual content, rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three of the leads – Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts – are left-handed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
NEXT: The Second Mother

Chop Shop

Chop Shop

Isamar Gonzales doesn’t care if Alejandro Polaco knows she ate all the Rice Krispies.

(2007) Drama (Koch Lorber) Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Carlos Zapata, Ahmad Razvi, Rob Sowulski, Anthony Felton, Evelisse “Lilah” Ortiz, Michael “Gringo” Nieto, Carlos Ayala, Laura Patalano, Nick Jasprizza, Nick Bentley. Directed by Ramin Bahrani


 It’s a street like so many others around the world. Auto repair places cheek by jowl with illegal chop shops; pushcarts selling deep-fried goodies from native countries. Garbage lines the streets. There are no sidewalks and children play in the junk yards as if they were playgrounds. This could be a backwater third world country, but it’s not; it’s Willets Point in Queens.

Ale (Polanco), age 12, and Isa (Gonzales), age 16, live on their own on this very street. The owner of an auto body shop (Sowulski) has rented a room in the back to them with a couple of cots to sleep on. They are on their own and have nothing. She works in a food truck by day and sells her body to truckers by night.

He is a budding entrepreneur, selling stolen hubcaps to shop owners and M&Ms on the subway platform. He dreams of buying a lunch truck and fixing it up, selling hot meals to the many workers in the local shops. He is very much the man of the house; Isa is pragmatic but frail.

And that’s the plot. All of it. Oh, there are some further details but while none of them shake the room with thunder, they are best experienced just like life – as they come. Bahrani, whose debut Man Push Cart was a critical darling, excels at taking slices of life from places we generally don’t get to see and almost compels us to watch.

He is a worthy heir to Vittorio De Sica, the Italian auteur of The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. I can’t really say for certain how realistic his portrayal of Willets Point is, but it feels that way. He used a lot of people in the neighborhood, disguising his production as a documentary so that the performances were more naturalistic although of course these hidden performances vary.

Both of the juvenile leads, however, acquit themselves magnificently, particularly Polanco. He plays a savvy little street hustler and apparently that’s a role very different than his own personality. There’s a toughness to him that sometimes breaks, revealing the very vulnerable boy beneath the veneer. The chemistry between him and Gonzales seems genuine (they attend the same school and Gonzales is close friends with Polanco’s sister). Gonzales has some tough scenes – there are no overt sex scenes but she has to play a young girl playing at being a woman; some of the scenes with Gonzales are very moving and she leaves an indelible impression.

Some of the other performances are less successful but it’s hard to tell who is acting and who’s being themselves. Ultimately it’s difficult to assess a lot of the roles because of that factor; let’s just say that I found some people convincing and some not so much. That’s only how they affected me however. Other opinions may vary – and have a bit more insight than mine.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. There are no happy endings (although the ending does have a grace not that leads to a feeling of hope overall) and no dramatic epiphanies. It ‘s just like life; things happens and life goes on. It’s not always pretty but it’s real and sometimes, that helps us navigate our way through our own Willets Points.

WHY RENT THIS: Devastating performances by Polanco and Gonzales. Has an air of realism that can’t be matched. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the amateur actors come through. May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, adult themes, a little bit of violence and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The auto shop that Isa and Ale bunk in is actually owned by actor Rob Sowulski who plays the owner and the work that Ale does in it is real (he got paid by Sowulski for the work and by the producers for his acting). To prepare for the role, Polanco worked for Sowulski in the shop for six months before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Rehearsals for eight of the scenes in the film are shown.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $221,227 on an unreported production budget; it’s possible that the film broke even although not likely.



NEXT: Hobo With a Shotgun