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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Secret Identity (2011)

Director: Tyler MacIntyre
Stars: Lee Meriwether, Annika Marks and Charles Howerton
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Secret Identity had what could be phrased a triumphant screening at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival this year. I'd been privileged to see it earlier and had been thoroughly impressed, but it simply came alive on the big screen. It hooked its audience early, carried every one of them magnificently along for its near twelve minute ride and left them happier and just a little bit more alive. Doctor Glamour had played less well on the big screen, not through any fault of its own, but merely because the sound was more muted than appropriate. Secret Identity, on the other hand, swelled out at the audience, not just the audio but the emotion too. You see, this is a lot more than the superhero movie you may have guessed at from the title. It's a romance, one powered by nostalgia but utterly contemporary nonetheless. It's also a subtle commentary on how the flurry of modern life can be summarised as not seeing the wood for the trees.

The lead is a young lady by the name of Janet, who is distracted from the moment she enters our story, chatting away on her mobile as she arrives at the Whispering Oaks Retirement Community to see her grandma, Faye. It looks like a nice place, but Janet is too busy chatting and texting to see beyond the world inside her phone. She has 'like a billion things going on', she tells her gran, and her fiancée Darren isn't there because 'he's busy', even during the holidays. We're already siding with grandma, of course, not least because she's played by Lee Meriwether and therefore has to be right. She's as elegant at 75 as she was at 31, replacing Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the Adam West Batman movie. She's quiet but you just know you should be paying attention to what she says. Faye thinks Janet could do better, and so do we when she asks to use her gran's wedding ring because, you know, it'll be romantic and, well, Darren can't afford one.
And it's here that Janet comes alive. She does seem to care and she doesn't seem to visit out of duty, but we're not sure if she really sees her grandma either. Yet, when she discovers that the green tin that the wedding ring is hiding in also contains press clippings about the young Faye meeting Captain Magnificent, she sees her in a whole new light. He's a superhero! He's famous! And there's a story in there somewhere, right? Absolutely! It's the bedrock to our film, and even Janet pays attention. If Janet is our lead and Faye our star, Janet's phone wants to depose both of them and we can tell that it's as thoroughly pissed off as we are happy that Janet doesn't answer it when Faye prepares to tell her story in flashback. That's a really telling moment, showing that she's found her grandma's secret identity and she can see her as a woman who's lived a life, not just a grandma who serves her tea. Her phone exits stage left.

Janet is played by Annika Marks, a young actor a decade or so into her career, and she does a good job here. Perhaps the best way to highlight that is to explain that Lee Meriwether is note perfect throughout, as magical as the story she has to tell, endowing her character with more depth in a mere few minutes than many actors manage in entire features. It would take a tough cookie indeed to not get caught up in the gentle emotions of her performance. Yet, her story is only there to underpin Janet's story and it's Annika Marks who ensures that we never lose sight of that. She has an entire story arc, and she leaves the film a little wiser than she was a mere dozen minutes earlier. Grandma gets the last scene, as she should, and we're treated to a neat, if not too surprising, twist. Like Janet, we leave the film a little wiser than we found it, wondering mostly whether Tyler MacIntyre's direction is a bigger triumph than his writing or vice versa.
The thing is that once you start to think about secret identities, they start to crop up everywhere. It's as if the only thing needed to find is to look, and once you start looking you start finding all sorts of magical stuff floating around in plain sight. It takes a lot of people to make a film, even if some of them wear a few different hats when they do it. MacIntyre's direction is deceptive, as it does everything it needs to without us really noticing until we look. Arndt Peemoeller's editing is no different, so seamless that we don't realise how good it is until we pay attention. MacIntyre's writing is a lot more overt but it's spot on, even though the realisation that this wasn't written by a woman is a surprising one. Msaada Nia is worthy of mention too for casting so well. That a short indie film can land both Lee Meriwether and Charles Howerton proves that there is much that is right in the world. Both have history in the genre and the talent to play the parts.

The look of the film is notable, especially in the flashback sequence. Cinematographer Daniel Kenji Levin turns the restriction of space within the care home into an opportunity to focus on the characters, but he plays the flashback scene like a comic book, aided by a simple but very effective alley set. I'm not enough of a comic book geek to know whether MacIntyre and his crew nailed that style, but it feels right. The story takes us from the busy, complex, detached modern world back to a quiet, simple, connected one, both of an earlier day and an earlier era of comic books. Showing us a young Faye, who wasn't a superhero, with Captain Magnificent, who was, is a throwback to both eras, real and comic book. The different visual styles used make it easy for us to compare the old with the new and to see that nothing has changed, really, if we'd only let ourselves notice. If only it didn't take a film that tells us to look for us to see.

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