The favourites to win this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film were A Prophet and The White Ribbon, so the Argentine outsider which beat them, The Secret in Their Eyes, has a lot to live up to.
Too much, as it turns out. Audiences attracted by the Oscar logo on the poster may well leave the cinema wondering what all the fuss was about. If, on the other hand, they take the film off its pedestal, and buy their tickets expecting a solidly built, thoughtful crime drama – a more grown-up sibling of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – then there's a lot to appreciate.
Its hero, Ricardo Darin, has retired from the Buenos Aires justice department. To keep himself occupied, he starts writing a novel inspired by a rape and murder case he investigated 25 years earlier. And to jog his memory, he gets back in touch with his former boss, Soledad Villamil, a younger woman for whom he's carried a torch ever since they worked together. In the film's "present day", actually 1999, we see Darin and Villamil mulling over the case as comfortable old friends, while in the 1970s flashbacks, we see them as hot-headed crusaders who still believe they can reform a rotten system.
Little by little, The Secret in Their Eyes develops into an aching elegy for the people Darin has lost and the opportunities he's missed. But if the film is strong on the "drama" part of "crime drama", the "crime" part is lacking: the murder case is ultimately too simple to hold our interest for two steadily paced hours. There's only ever one suspect, so Darin doesn't do much detective work, either in the 1970s or in the "present day". And we know that he and Villamil are never in danger during the flashbacks, because we've seen how hale and hearty they are 25 years later.
The irony of The Sorcerer's Apprentice – a live-action Disney fantasy starring Nicolas Cage – is that it's based on an eight-minute segment of Fantasia, and yet it feels rushed and cluttered at nearly two hours long. Perhaps that shouldn't be too surprising, given that it shares a producer and two of its five screenwriters with this summer's similarly over-egged Prince of Persia, but the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach has left it piled high with sub-plots, sidekicks and special effects.
Luckily, there's a fair amount of wit and imagination in there, too. Jay Baruchel is winningly vulnerable as the nerdy physics student at New York University who becomes the reluctant assistant of Cage's leather-coated magus (one of the film's most pleasing ideas is that magic is just an advanced form of science).
And Alfred Molina and Toby Kebbell almost steal the show as the two baddies, a supercilious Edwardian cad and a strutting Cockney stage conjurer, respectively. Now that the Harry Potter franchise is getting so gloomy, it's a relief to see a film about a trainee wizard which is so much fun.
Nicholas conjures up more magicians in The Illusionist
Also Showing: 15/08/2010
Le Refuge (89 mins, 15)
A young woman (Isabelle Carré) learns that she's pregnant just after her boyfriend has died of a heroin overdose. Moving from Paris to a seaside house for the summer, she bonds with her dead lover's brother (Louis-Ronan Choisy). Considering that Carré herself was pregnant during the filming – no prosthetic bumps or body doubles required – it's odd how little François Ozon's latest diaphanous drama has to say about maternity, and how much it has to say about living rent-free in a big house near the beach.
Black Dynamite (85 mins, 15)
This beautifully realised blaxploitation pastiche gets plenty of laughs by nudging its source material just an inch or two off-centre. Despite a lull in the middle, it's streets ahead of Meet the Spartans, and the other dreadful attempts at film parody these days.
Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (76 mins, U)
With its TV-standard animation, its negligible story and its insulting running time, this cutesy Peter Pan spin-off was obviously made for DVD, and that's where it should have stayed.
The Final (93 mins, 18)
Some bullied high-schoolers take revenge in this third-rate torture-porn flick. The anti-hero is such a pompous windbag that his victims must have seen the torture as a welcome break from his lectures.