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MORIARTY Pretends To Be In TORONTO!! Reviews SECRETARY!!

Published at: Sept. 10, 2002, 6:54 a.m. CST

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

I can’t sleep this morning. I’ve been working hard for the last few weeks on my creative endeavors, things that keep me moored here in LA, and I've been loving every second of it.

As a result, I’ve had to just watch enviously from afar as Ravvy’s been reporting in from Venice and as we got reports from Telluride and as the first few days worth of coverage have started to trickle in now from Toronto. I met the wonderful Dusty and Joan Cohl at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival earlier this year, and I was looking forward to seeing them in Toronto. I’m not complaining about missing it... I mean, I’m working. I’m writing for someone. I’m digging into the research and really immersing myself in it. Let’s be honest... that’s a good reason to miss something.

Even when I’m buried, though, I can’t help myself. I have to sneak away to see films. And when people offer to show me some of what’s screening at Toronto so I can peek at it here, I have to take the opportunity. I knew next to nothing about any of these films when I sat down to see them, and as a result, they all took me by genuine surprise. Two of them are being shown as midnight films at the festival, and the other one is set to be released by Lions Gate later this month. None of them are mainstream items, and they all have their own particular charms.

So whattaya say we just jump right in? First up, there's...

SECRETARY

Director Steven Shainberg (HIT ME), who has adapted Mary Gaitskill’s original short story along with screenwriter Eric Cressida Wilson, deserves credit for tackling such tonally difficult material, and also for having the good common sense to cast the luminous Maggie Gyllenhaal in the lead. I have no idea if this unique and magnetic actress is going to cross over to mainstream stardom, but if she does, this film is going to be where it starts.

SECRETARY is not a great movie. It’s not the kind of film that I am going to insist that you run out and see. It is a film of simple and subtle pleasures, and how much you enjoy it will depend in large part on how you react to the performances from Gyllenhaal and James Spader. There are other people in the film, but they make little or no impression. This is about what happens between Lee and her new boss, E. Edward Grey. Everything else is secondary, and in a way, that’s the point of the film, so it’s hard to criticize the film for its tunnel vision.

The film begins with Lee being released from an institution on the day of her sister’s wedding. It’s pretty obvious why she was in there in the first place when she begins cutting herself secretly. It’s no wonder. Her homelife is a horrible cartoon, a little too dark to be funny, a little too broad to be taken seriously. Somehow, Gyllenhaal strikes just the right tone, even when the script doesn’t. She gets us through the start of the film, through Lee’s typing training, and into the heart of the piece when she goes in to interview with a lawyer about the want ad he placed.

Every moment that happens between Spader and Gyllenhaal, I was captivated. Something chemical and basic happens between them as performers. In a film like this, something that has to do with attraction and love and need and desire, it’s next to impossible to fake heat. How many movies have been notoriously miscast, resulting in cold and ineffective onscreen relationships? You have to pray for alchemy, and Shainberg got incredibly lucky. Even in the first moment between them, there’s something going on that is unspoken, deeper than even subtext. E. Edward Grey recognizes something in Lee, she recognizes something in him, and without even speaking about it, they simply snap into place, ready for whatever’s next.

Under the careful, tentative touch of E. Edward Grey, Lee blossoms, and this is the part of the film where I think the case can be made that Gyllenhaal steps up as a real find. It’s not an act. The actress comes to life as this passage of the film unfolds, and she actually seems to become more beautiful, more interesting, more real. Dozens and dozens of Cinderella stories are made by Hollywood, films like SHE’S ALL THAT or THE PRINCESS DIARIES where a beautiful girl is suddenly discovered to be... well... beautiful. Turning a swan into a swan sort of undermines the whole ugly duckling formula. With Gyllenhaal, it’s not that she’s ugly at the beginning of the film so much as it is that she simply isn’t at home in her own skin. She isn’t playing some codified Hollywood version of the outsider; she’s a fucking alien life form. And as she comes to realize who she is, and how Grey fits into her life, she begins to inhabit her body with a new confidence. Shainberg shows a very sure hand in the way he keeps Gyllenhaal completely clothed throughout the film until a crucial moment. When she is finally revealed, nude, her body scarred from the pains in her past, she’s achingly pretty because Spader sees her as beautiful. We see her with his eyes by that point, and she’s transcendent.

The message of this film isn’t particularly new or shocking or unexpected. What makes SECRETARY distinct and worthwhile is the particular version of this story that it’s chosen to tell. The film says that why we love who we love is often a mystery to us. The film says that love normalizes even the most extreme needs through acceptance. Perhaps there is something bold about saying that pain can bring healing as long as it’s applied by the right hand, but even that seems obvious and even normal thanks to the way that Gyllenhaal demonstrates her own acceptance of the idea. There’s a sequence towards the end of the film that veers into the surreal, a romantic gesture that becomes an endurance test, and I can appreciate some of the ideas in this stretch of the film more than the actual execution. Despite these moments where Shainberg loses his firm grip on the material, I think there’s a whole lot to like about SECRETARY, and I would advise you to take someone with you who turns you on. Even if the particular games in this movie aren’t to your liking, it may start one or both of you thinking about what you would prefer. Any film that intelligently provokes that particular type of discussion afterwards is worth at least a look.

I’ll be back later today with a look at MY LITTLE EYE and VOLCANO HIGH, two of the movies being shown in Midnight Madness. Right now, I’ve gotta shut my eyes for a few...

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback

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  • Sept. 10, 2002, 7:15 a.m. CST

    Off-topic, but is anyone gonna say a few words about Katrin Cart

    by MartinBlank

    Fascinating Brit character actress ('Naked,' 'Dancer in the Dark,' 'Career Girls,' 'From Hell,' etc.), dead at 41. Damn. Guess she's not enough of a fanboy fetish object to rate a mention here though. ON topic, I'm first in line for this one just for Maggie, if it comes out anywhere near me.

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 7:22 a.m. CST

    Yeah, I know, it was 'Breaking the Waves,' not 'Danc

    by MartinBlank

    I'll shut up about that now. Incidentally I read somewhere that Mary Gaitskill didn't think much of the movie version of her story 'Secretary.' The story can be found in her collection 'Bad Behavior.' It's one of several million books sitting around here waiting for me to get around to it. It's gonna have to take a back seat to Palahniuk's 'Lullaby' when it comes out next week though.

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 8:19 a.m. CST

    Maggie Gyllenhall sounds like one of the X-Men!

    by Monkey Lover

    She's "luminous" and "magnetic"! Maybe she will appear in X2.

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 9:22 a.m. CST

    PLANT!!!!!

    by Smilin'Jack Ruby

    Oh, oops, sorry. Wrong talkback :)

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 10:27 a.m. CST

    Moriarity can pretend to be in T.O all he wants, but..

    by Double-Helix

    like any fantasy, it's no subsitute for the real thing. I hope that Volcanoe High is fun, but I REALLY, REALLY hope that Ryuhei Kitamura can top last year's festival sleeper, "Versus," with his latest offering, "Alive." Everything seems to be there, but will the actors put on a martial arts display like they did last year? Who will win Toronto's "People's choice" award this year? Whatever film does, will amost certainly be succesful, as nearly EVERY winner here has gone on to do great things (both critically) and commercially. Screw Cannes, there isn't a festival in the world like TIFF.

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 10:30 a.m. CST

    I'm going to pretend to be in Toronto, too!

    by rev_skarekroe

    I'm surrounded by mooses, eh? Yeah, I'm a funny guy. sk

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 10:36 a.m. CST

    mmhhh...toronto :)

    by drjones

    who doesn`t wish to be there on this place now =8-)...*sigh* ohhh mori...you do some steps forward!!! how about telling us a LITTLE BIT MORE..huhh?????

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 10:44 a.m. CST

    36 hours of film, overtime, and graveyard shift =

    by Double-Helix

    DELIRIUM! Delirium = terrible grammar, spelling, internet postings. No editing ability on a talkback = nonsensical apologies, but enough analysis; it's time for some R.E.M! (No, Don't stand in the place that you work!) I'm talking about rapid eye... Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 12:15 p.m. CST

    It had a great trailer!

    by JonQuixote

    And there hasn't been a good B&D comedy since 9 1/2 WEEKS. And that one wasn't even supposed to be a comedy!

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 12:56 p.m. CST

    I loved Katrin Cartlidge R.I.P.

    by otis von zipper

    Secretary looks great, but this news of Katrin Cartlidge dying has me down. Ever since Mike Leigh's Naked, I 've enjoyed seeing her work even when it was a small role in a weak film (From Hell). I'll be looking into some of the ones I've missed, like Career Girls and Topsy-Turvy. If anyone is interested, check out No Man's Land, Breaking the Waves, or Before the Rain for sure. Looks like they'll be just one posthumous release; Weight of Water. Her role was fairly small though.

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 12:57 p.m. CST

    Katrin Cartlidge, no shit?

    by Lenny Nero

    Fuck, dude. NAKED is one of my favorite movies. This blows. This seriously blows.

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 2:01 p.m. CST

    Hey Mori, another good example of a true ugly duckling story, wi

    by Lenny Nero

    Man, that movie did not get the respect it deserved. Great indie.

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 2:12 p.m. CST

    Don't be nervous, Mori.

    by KONG33

    They liked your script enough to use it to make an expensive film, and probably already like you, from reading AICN. Just worry about liking what you, and really, really enjoying it, the rest will be easier. Have a good day! Good luck! Tell us all about it!!

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 7:07 p.m. CST

    PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE TRAILER ONLINE!!!!

    by David Fincher

    http://www.apple.com/trailers/columbia/punch_drunk_love/ Check it out!!! Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch drunk love trailer is now online!! Man, it looks original, beautiful... and very, very P.T.Anderson!!!

  • Sept. 10, 2002, 7:47 p.m. CST

    punchdrunk love trailer is online and it looks like adam sandler

    by stuftseveredhead

    dear god, the terrorists have already won.

  • Sept. 11, 2002, 1:11 a.m. CST

    Katrin had...

    by Christopher3

    An English smile, she did. Arf. We miss her anyway.

  • Sept. 11, 2002, 1:25 a.m. CST

    My Little Eye

    by F Timmie

    There's a film coming out called My Little Eye. Why, that's what I call my doodle.

  • Sept. 11, 2002, 3 a.m. CST

    While watching the trailer for Secretary...

    by Dlhstar

    ...All I could think is, "My god, James Spader looks like Patrick McGoohan." (Colombo 'murder-at-the-acadamy'-era Patty...) Perhaps we've got a new candidate for a potential Number 6?