Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: January 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

Movie Review: Edge of Darkness (2010)

by Tony Dayoub

Opening today, Edge of Darkness marks the first time Mel Gibson stars in a movie in seven years. A remake of a seminal British TV miniseries from the 1980s, its original director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) returns to do the translating. It is apparent (even to this writer, who never saw the original) that there was some compression involved in adapting the story to the screen. Convoluted story points rush towards the viewer at breakneck speed. Minor characters seem to have a larger than normal prominence. But in the case of what is at the core a conventional conspiracy thriller, these attributes serve to enhance the fresh feel of the film rather than detract from it.

It's easy to see what attracted Gibson to the dark material in the first place. Like most of the characters he plays, Boston police detective Thomas Craven is a masochist. No, he doesn't endure violent physical torture here like he does as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon (1987), William Wallace in Braveheart (1995), or like the titular protagonist does in The Passion of the Christ (2004). Craven obsessively investigates the murder of his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), killed right before his eyes by an assailant who only at first glance was targeting him. He soon learns she led a compartmentalized life working for a classified nuclear energy project which may be at the root of her murder. Craven's determination to find those responsible lead him to immerse himself deeper and more painfully in the details and facts surrounding his daughter's death—and life—than most parents would ever care to. Director Campbell puts the viewer in Craven's headspace to get the point across, training the camera on the sink as he washes his daughter's blood off his face, making one conscious it is her life he sees circling down the drain. Then Gibson folds the bloodied hand towel ever so neatly and stows it in a glass, unable to part with her remains no matter how devastating a reminder they are. Here, the torture is purely emotional.

If the film's faults lie in the elliding and compression of its plot, its strengths are in Campbell's choice to favor personal moments over action oriented ones. He can still direct a brutal fight scene like the early one between Craven and a suspect who turns out to be Emma's boyfriend, or a violent collision such as the one which leads to a car falling into a lake. But more often than not, Campbell makes time to allow Craven and the viewer to ruminate on the relationship the cop had with his daughter. Photographs of Emma spark flashbacks to his relationship with her as a child, a particularly close one given the implication that he is a widower. One scene at the beach is particularly resonant, and even darkly humorous, because of the small mishap which occurs when he tries to spread her ashes.

Bolstering the resonance of the film's emotional undercurrent are the frequent and acute reminders that everyone is somebody's child. Even the tiniest characters in Edge of Darkness reveal quirks which make them stand out, like the reporter who apologizes to Craven for having to stalk him for a response, or the informant who keeps reminding him she owns a luggage store. More specifically, screenwriters William Monahan and Andrew Bovell work mightily to attune the viewer's state of mind to Craven's, one in which he is extremely aware of every individual's connection to parents, children, and their community—indeed their connection to life itself—a quality which some might think would hinder the detective in his quest for justice, but actually drives him forward. It also invests the thriller with a personal aspect which is so often lacking in such exercises.

This is not to say there aren't any underlying political dimensions to the film. Edge of Darkness is poised to be a resounding success—at least in the U.S.— despite some criticism about Gibson's character always seeming to be one step ahead of the movie's villains. It's a valid point. But it is also what helps the viewer identify so keenly with Craven. Given the current political climate, a determined vigilante seeking justice after his daughter is eliminated by government contractors for doing what is morally right is a ready-made hero for this era of anti-government populism.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Crazy Heart: The Invisible Man Emerges

by Tony Dayoub

With Jeff Bridges a seeming lock for Best Actor in this year's Oscar races, there come the inevitable disclaimers, "Yeah, he deserves one, but this isn't necessarily the performance for which he should be getting it." True that in the past, Oscar has been bestowed on notable actors in second-rate roles as compensation for being overlooked in other more important performances. Most famously, Al Pacino got one for Scent of a Woman (1992) despite three instances (okay, maybe two) in which he could and should have received one for his captivating minimalist performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather series, forever justifying his irritating inclination to play it big. Indeed, Denzel Washington was another actor who received one of these Oscars for Training Day (2001) when he really deserved it for Malcolm X in the year that Pacino got his award. What no one seems to be saying about Bridges' performance as country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart is that in this case, the honor may actually be deserved.

Part of the reason, no doubt, is the "been there, done that" issue that arises when one looks at Crazy Heart and the debt it owes to its predecessor, Tender Mercies (1983). So greatly do the two films stories of aging alcoholic country singers dovetail, it was necessary to cast the latter's Robert Duvall (who won an Oscar for that, concidentally) and throw him a producer credit just to acknowledge the inevitable comparisons between both films.

This is not to diminish the film's warmth and genuine relish in allowing one to observe Blake's self-loathing so closely. Director Scott Cooper presents Blake as a functioning alcoholic who has the old leather-feel of an endearing curmudgeon rather than the off-putting antics of an obnoxious scoundrel. Bridges invites the viewer into his charming sphere of influence much the same way he does his paramour Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He simply turns up the defensive allure an actor must rely on the same way an alcoholic has become accustomed to doing when evading the underlying predicament of his own existence.

This easy charm is what has thus far undercut Bridges chances for recognition. If all of his vastly different performances in great movies—from Duane in The Last Picture Show to the Dude in The Big Lebowski; from Bone in Cutter's Way to Scudder in 8 Million Ways to Die; from the titular Tucker to Max Klein in Fearless—can be made to look so easy, then is it any wonder that it's taken so long for Bridges to be acknowledged? Here, finally, is a role that stands out in an otherwise average film, and perhaps by aiming low Bridges has finally achieved the measure of success he has merited all along.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Happy Belated Birthday to Cinema Viewfinder!

by Tony Dayoub

I missed acknowledging the official second anniversary on Friday. So I'll make it up to myself with something from one of my favorite paisanos to get you going this morning.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

TV Review at The House Next Door: Caprica - "Pilot"

by Tony Dayoub

Those interested in last night's debut of Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica spinoff, can read the first of my weekly recaps up now at The House Next Door, now the offical blog for Slant Magazine. The premiere should be on heavy rotation all weekend on the Syfy Channel.

Jean Simmons

by Tony Dayoub

A striking British beauty with a melodic voice, Jean Simmons classic performance style made her a shoo-in for roles with a theatrical quality. So it is ironic that though she had some brief stage and dance experience, she never had the opportunity to study extensively in the theater. She was discovered just after starting dance school in her teens. And when no less than Laurence Olivier invited her to study with the Bristol Old Vic theater company, she had to refuse because the Rank Organisation had her under contract.

This did not preclude her from giving us a memorable exotic dance sequence as the sexually precocious Kanchi in Black Narcissus (1947) or undertaking the pivotal role of Ophelia opposite Olivier in his Hamlet film adaptation a year later, a performance for which she would receive an Oscar nomination. In fact, roles that originated on the stage were an easy fit for her, as she would prove opposite Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in 1955's Guys and Dolls based on Frank Loesser's Broadway musical.

Indeed, she could be counted on for any role that called for a touch of theatricality, whether it be in Biblical epics like, The Robe (1953) and its sequel, in William Wyler's western The Big Country (1958), as the slave girl Varinia opposite Kirk Douglas in the sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus (1960), or as the religious zealot Sister Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry (1960), directed by her future husband Richard Brooks (she had been married once before to actor Stewart Granger).

As the Method came into vogue, Simmons moved away from films to TV where she would parlay her style into scene-stealing turns in The Thorn Birds (1983), North and South (1985), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1991), and the Dark Shadows remake (1991).

She died yesterday, just 9 days shy of her 81st birthday.

Recommended Films - Black Narcissus, Hamlet, Guys and Dolls, The Big Country, Elmer Gantry,Spartacus

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Best Films of the 00s: 2005

by Tony Dayoub

Sorry for the delay. I've had a heck of a stomach virus. Today, I continue my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, spotlighting my favorite films of 2005. Steven Spielberg deserves special recognition for giving us two of the best films of the decade in one year, a cautionary science fiction tale and a historical thriller, both of which address post-9/11 concerns. A reminder: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I never saw it. At the end of the month, I'll post my ten best for 2009. I will then follow up with my 10 best films of the 2000s.

And now, in alphabetical order, the ten best films of 2005...

2046, director Wong Kar Wai - An entrancing companion to Wong's In the Mood for Love, it follows that film's lead, writer Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), through a string of affairs in the wake of his failure to consumate his love for the previous film's Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). It's a wonderful excuse for Wong and Christopher Doyle to photograph some of the most fascinating Asian actresses out there: Li Gong, Faye Wong, and Ziyi Zhang. And it's likely the only time you'll see a fusion of science fiction, period drama, and romantic thriller in any film, much less a Hong Kong art film.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin, dir. Judd Apatow - Sweet, silly, filthy, and uncannily on target, Apatow's film directing debut is also one funny movie. Steve Carell (The Office) plays the anti-Michael Scott, a sexually naive, but not entirely ignorant, stereo store clerk. His charming performance as an amiable dork helps ameliorate Apatow's occasional inclination toward (over-) extended dialogue riffs that are just this side of offensive.

The Constant Gardener, dir. Fernando Meirelles - Ralph Fiennes' diplomat, Justin Quayle, may be the onstensible hero in this exposé on pharmaceutical misdeeds in Kenya, adapted from John le Carré's 2001 novel. But the true heart and soul of this film resides in Rachel Weisz's portrayal of Quayle's spirited activist wife, Tessa. Her murder is the film's inciting incident, but Weisz's engaging performance— captured in impressionistic flashbacks woven into the chronologically fractured narrative—hangs like a spectre over the rest of the corporate espionage thriller.

Grizzly Man, dir. Werner Herzog - The German director fashioned much of this haunting documentary from found footage of Timothy Treadwell, an idealistic environmentalist who died as he lived, among dangerous grizzly bears in Alaska. At the outset of the film, Treadwell doesn't seem any stranger than your average animal documentary host (it takes a certain kind of person to fill that position). But as the movie progresses his quirks—and anecdotal evidence from those who knew him—pile up to form an image of a man not unlike the misguided, obsessive protagonists of Herzog's fictional narratives.

A History of Violence, dir. David Cronenberg - One of the best arguments for using graphic novels as source material, Violence is easily Cronenberg's best and most accessible film in a decade full of such films from the usually cold and cerebral director. Cronenberg (The Fly) examines the effects of violence on a small-town family after Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) defends his coffee shop from a hold-up. The director implies that violence begets more violence, and explores the idea that perhaps it is hereditary; Stall's son (Ashton Holmes), often picked on by bullies, begins to display a knack for ending fights as well; and Stall's brother (William Hurt in an Oscar-nominated role as a Philly gangland boss) has a propensity for violence as well. What it boils down to is not whether violence is genetically ingrained, but if a person has the will to overcome those tendencies.

Munich, Dir. Steven Spielberg - Spielberg's second film of the year (see War of the Worlds below) finds him still working out some of his feelings post-9/11. His cultural background comes into play here, as the story explores the price paid by an Israeli Mossad agent (Eric Bana) when he becomes all too aware of the complicated feelings and repercussions that arise when he seeks retribution for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in 1972's Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists. Look for Daniel Craig in a supporting role, first showing some of the leading man potential used to great effect in Casino Royale just one year later.

The New World, dir. Terrence Malick - Malick averages one film every decade. But if they all achieve the glorious transcendence which this film does, it's fine with me. Here, he fuses the fact and mythology behind the legend of Pocahontas (exquisitely portrayed by the young Q'orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell), continuing his exploration of man's tendency towards violence and its effect on nature. The two lovers overcome cultural differences to create a harmonious oasis of peace in an unforgiving world. Malick overcomes the limitations of language both aural and visual to convey the beauty of paradise lost.

Sin City, dirs. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez - Forget The Wrestler (well not really, it's quite good). Marv, the beat-up but never broken bruiser at the center of Sin City's best segment, is the role that heralded Mickey Rourke's comeback. Even under a thick layer of prosthetics, nifty effects, and a mannered performance dictated by the neo-noir stylings of Frank Miller's graphic novels, Rourke's gravel-inflected voice and brawler's physique help convey the sweet soul of this pitiable but heroic loser. His performance helps close the circle begun by the noir films that inspired Miller's comics in the first place.

Syriana, dir. Stephen Gaghan - Gaghan's film is as much a primer on the forces driving U.S. dealings in the Middle East as the film he won the Oscar for writing, Traffic, is a primer on the drug trade. The great ensemble cast includes Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, and Christopher Plummer. But the two standouts are Alexander Siddig (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as the wise young Prince Nasir, and George Clooney in his best performance as CIA agent Bob Barnes, a stand-in for the former agent whose exploits provided the source material for the film, Robert Baer.

War of the Worlds, dir. Steven Spielberg - The first of Spielberg's 2005 diptych addressing the post-9/11 temperature (see Munich above) sees the director creating sympathy for a (usually) absent father (Tom Cruise) forced by circumstances to own up to his responsibilities. This is quite a turnaround for the older, wiser director whose usual focus on broken families rarely sides with the father while typically idealizing him (Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ford in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Here, Cruise is presented warts and all, usually bumbling into a heroic save.

For more of this ongoing series, click here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Must Read on Miami Vice (2006)

by Tony Dayoub

I don't generally do this, but Jake's humble retraction on Miami Vice over at Not Just Movies is so well expressed that I'm moved to climb to the highest hilltops to recommend everyone go read it.

Here's one particularly potent passage:
The first immediately apparent shift in aesthetic from the show's aesthetic sheen is Mann's willingness to paint Miami as a bit of a carelessly painted-over dump. In his documentary traversing the United States, British author/comedian/actor/renaissance man Stephen Fry found much to love about our country, save for an uproariously brief tour through Miami, which Fry cut short because he so detested it: "It has that feeling of being designed as a holiday paradise," he says of the beach area, "and, indeed, all the dreary things that go with the word 'paradise' -- like palm trees and huge cut-out parrots -- that promise so much and deliver so staggeringly little." Of the city itself, he drawls, "Surely it must have a heart and a soul and a meaning and a kind of delightful center or something, but I've yet to find it."

Mann seems to agree with this assessment of the two distinctly different yet wholly off-putting cityscapes of the Miami-Dade area: the director wrenches the dirty aesthetic of Collateral's night-time hell into the light, an effect analogous to picking up a date in a crowded, dark nightclub and bringing him or her into broad daylight to see the horrible truth of the person you thought was so slick under a blacklight and now realize that you were just looking at a photo negative. His color palette is dominated by a jaundiced yellow; the phrase "this city is dying" typically belongs in the realm of comic books, but by applying it through the visuals Mann subtly communicates the disease spreading through Miami, all the time using this color scheme to undermine the hollow allure of the city.
Impressive take on a movie which so many have misunderstood, and worth checking out by all of my readers. Let Jake know what you think in the comments.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Up in the Air and the Perils of Award Season Hype

by Tony Dayoub

A number of you (including an ex-girlfriend) have written me to ask when I plan on reviewing Up in the Air. A fair question considering that besides Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Precious, Jason Reitman's recession-era comedy has been hyped as a shoo-in for multiple nominations come Oscar time.

As someone who is currently assessing the best films of the decade, I strive to see as many films as I can to give you the most inclusive and honest conclusion I can. Sometimes, I'm not successful. My opinion on the first half of the decade is slanted heavily towards American films. 2005 through 2007 were years that proved especially difficult in finding the time to get out and see everything since these were the years in which I started a family. But I can assure you that since I've started Cinema Viewfinder back in January of 2008, I have seen virtually everything that has come down to Atlanta, and thanks to screeners and my annual trip to the press screenings at the NYFF, even some things that haven't. I can safely say if I haven't seen it, it's because I deliberately avoided doing so.

Also, I try to write about everything I see. Sometimes I don't for the best of reasons. Though I loved this year's Duplicity (so much I lurved it), I just couldn't find a way to do the damn film any justice without giving most of it away. So I'll get to it, once it's had some exposure. Other times I don't write about movies because my heart just isn't in it. Which brings us to Up in the Air.

The truth is, I saw this movie in the early days of December. But I found it mediocre to okay at best, a sharp contrast from all the hype it had already been recieving as one of the best movies of the year. And before you even think it, I generally work hard to avoid reading any reviews before I watch a film—to avoid any "opinion contamination" for lack of a better term. But when you open your email, and you're getting news flashes from the Associated Press, Daily Variety, etc., really pushing the idea this film is going to sweep it up at all the major awards; when you hear Robert Siegel on NPR's All Things Considered interviewing a very congenial-sounding Jason Reitman (Juno) about his latest movie; you just can't help having a prejudice going into the film. And my prejudice was this: If I'm anything less than completely bowled over by this average-looking George Clooney indie comedy, I'm going to think it sucked.

And guess what? The film, likable in some parts, just kinda sits there for me. Funny? Not really, just kind of amusing in that oh-that's-how-it-is-in-my-life-how-perceptive-of-them kind of way. Relevant? Only in that Clooney's main character fires people for a living, and a lot of people are getting fired right now. But short of their immediate reactions to being fired, we never really see the effects of the recession on any character in the movie, a missed opportunity which could have been explored in depth when Clooney's character goes to his sister's wedding in a small town in the Midwest, an area hard hit by layoffs. Poor Avatar is getting eviscerated (including by me) for aspiring to its relevance simply by planting some well-known "War on Terror" buzzwords here and there, but at least Cameron's film is technically innovative. Performances? I'm actually not one of Clooney's numerous detractors who attack him for always playing some version of his smug self ad infinitum. Some actors are not cast because they are "acting" as much as they are for being "personalities" (see Cruise, Tom; Schwarzenegger, Arnold; and Wayne, John). But with my highly elevated expectations, Clooney struck me as smugger than ever.

Which is to say, this is not a review of Up in the Air, not like the ones I generally write. It's more of a cautionary tale about buying into the hype. It's more of a since-you-wanted-to-know-what-I-think rant. It's more of a thought piece anticipating Cinema Viewfinder's new mission to focus on cinema—whether good or bad—that interest this writer, and resisting the urge to write about a movie simply because it's what's expected.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


by Tony Dayoub

With some reports estimating that the death toll in Haiti could be upwards of 100,000, I would like to ask all my readers to think about donating something, anything, to aid in disaster relief for what is—according to ABC News—the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The easiest donation I ever made was one I made this morning, where I texted HAITI to 90999 to donate $10 to the International Federation of the Red Cross Relief Efforts.

Unfortunately, I must issue a disclaimer: be careful... the scammers are out in force taking advantage of this sad situation. Forbes has listed a number of reputable charities that are mobilizing to provide assistance to Haiti.

Please consider giving something to aid in the relief effort.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Best Films of the 00s: 2004

by Tony Dayoub

Continuing my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, today I spotlight my favorite films of 2004. Following last year's particularly weak showing, this year proved to be quite a boon for American cinema, so much so that I didn't leave room for any foreign pics—for which I'll be properly chastised, no doubt. A reminder: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I never saw it. At the end of the month, I'll post my ten best for 2009. I will then follow up with my 10 best films of the 2000s.

And now, in alphabetical order, the ten best films of 2004...

The Aviator, director Martin Scorsese - Leonardo DiCaprio and Scorsese's most fruitful collaboration thus far. This Howard Hughes biopic focuses on some of his most productive years as an aero-design innovator (moonlighting as a lingerie engineer to maximize his new starlet Jane Russell's natural assets in one funny sequence), before sanity starts to slip away. A sequel could prove interesting (only with both director and star's participation). Casting here is a bit uneven. Cate Blanchett as another famous Kate and Alec Baldwin as Pan Am exec Juan Trippe: perfect. Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner and Jude Law as Errol Flynn: not so much. But this gleaming bauble of a film is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds), and scored memorably by Howard Shore.

Birth, dir. Jonathan Glazer - Glazer's adult approach to the fairy tale idea of eternal love between a wife (Nicole Kidman) and her late husband—who may be reincarnated in a boy (Cameron Bright) with the same name, Sean—often goes right up to the edge of disturbing. But it never crosses the line despite the director's Kubrickian eye for the events unfolding onscreen. A large part of the credit goes to composer Alexandre Desplat (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) for orchestrating one of the most lushly romantic scores ever committed to celluloid, and definitely the best score of the 2000s. Desplat keeps Glazer's tale tethered to a dreamy, fanciful plane at counterpoint with the grimness of Harris Savides' wonderfully dark cinematography. And Glazer and his editors, Sam Sneade and Claus Wehlisch, cut the movie so well to the music, that it's almost as if the score existed before the film was even shot. The first shot, a long take of the older Sean running through a snowy Central Park is the most absorbing and powerful opening to an American film in years.

Closer, dir. Mike Nichols - A sadder companion piece to Nichols' earlier exploration into sexual politics, Carnal Knowledge (1971). Here, the women (Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts) get a greater opportunity to have their say than in the original film which was purely told from the perspective of Nicholson and Garfunkel's two cads. And what they say is as rough and shocking as any bitter recrimination tossed at you during a relationship-finisher with a significant other. Patrick Marber contributes the expletive-laced screenplay based on his own play.

Collateral, dir. Michael Mann - This cat-and-mouse exercise left me cold when I first saw it theatrically. I just wasn't hip yet to how delicate Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron's digital video photography really is. Optimum screens are required, and at that point most exhibitors were out of the loop. Only on an HD home screen did the beauty of the low-light photography (which to my unskilled eye, looks mostly like ambient lighting) reveal itself, and the film came to life. Night clouds pregnant with the glow of L.A.'s sodium lights have never looked more vivid. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx have great chemistry in this, a rare outing as a nihilistic baddie for Cruise.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, dir. Michel Gondry - A paradoxical documentary-like look into the human soul is the best way to describe Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's vision. Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) again treats a well-worn subject—the difficult break-up—with imaginative whimsy, poetic reverence, and melancholy reality. Jim Carrey—an often polarizing presence when allowed free rein—plays it remarkably straight here, even when he regresses to his memory's version of the child he once was. Kate Winslet nails the sprightly fuck-up Clementine, who incites the events in the film when she goes to Lacuna Inc. to have the memory of her relationship with Carrey's Joel erased.

I ♥ Huckabees, dir. David O. Russell - A thought-provoking madcap existential detective comedy may sound inherently contradictory, but somehow Russell (Three Kings) pulls it off. And his cast—actors (like Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin, Mark Wahlberg, and Naomi Watts) with distinctly different approaches to their craft—are always on the same page (or blanket). You'll know you understand the film if you not just laugh at, but appreciate Watt's admonishment, "I'm in my tree talking to the Dixie Chicks, and they're making me feel better."

The Incredibles, dir. Brad Bird - Equal parts James Bond and Fantastic Four filtered through Jim Steranko's dynamic aesthetic is the basis for Pixar's best movie. Director Bird also infuses the film with a personal touch, addressing the way starting a family can change one's life overnight. A wonderful John Barry/007-inspired score by Michael Giacchino (Lost) seals the deal.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2, dir. Quentin Tarantino - The promise Tarantino displayed in volume 1 of his epic is fulfilled in this vastly superior followup that's a cross between a spaghetti western and a chopsocky flick. Perhaps it is because here he graduates to a deeper concern with the emotional underpinnings of the Bride's quest than the physical histrionics of the first film suggested (the Bride finally gets a name, for one thing). Uma Thurman is given a chance to exercise her acting chops in ways she hasn't since her last alliance with the director in Pulp Fiction. And she holds her own quite well opposite David Carradine as Bill, despite Tarantino's overreliance on hip dialogue in the third act when a visceral catharsis is what's really called for.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, dir. Wes Anderson - A transitional film for Anderson, I think. Aquatic seems to open up the canvas somewhat, and his collaboration with animator Henry Selick (who brings the sea fauna to life) predates their partnership in Fantastic Mr. Fox (Selick ultimately quit). The best sequences in the movie—a tour of Zissou's ship, the Belafonte, in cutaway; the Belafonte's hijacking by pirates; Team Zissou's rescue of Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum)—evoke the feeling of children playing pretend war games while running around with dad's minicam, or at the very least, one of Max Fischer's plays come to life. Forget about the absurdity of hearing Bowie songs reinterpreted in Portuguese by Zissou's Brazilian crewman, Pelé (Seu Jorge). Any film that cuts a montage to Devo's "Gut Feeling" gets points with me.

Napoleon Dynamite, dir. Jared Hess - I rarely get into comedies. They've either got to be extremely witty or so absurd as to feel like they were shot in some alternate universe. This film falls into the latter category. Not only is Napoleon (Jon Heder) incredibly inane, he seems postively insightful next to the rest of the denizens of his small town. This is perhaps my most controversial pick of the decade, and I'll surely hear so from someone in the comments. I can't even tell you why this makes me shake with paroxysms of laughter every time I see it. The fact that it defies analysis is one of the reasons it appears here.

For more of this ongoing series, click here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tooting My Own Horn

by Tony Dayoub

As Cinema Viewfinder quickly approaches its second anniversary, I am gratified that two writers which I respect have chosen to acknowledge this blog along with others of a level of quality I can only aspire to.

First, Joel Bocko (aka MovieMan0283), one of this blog's oldest and most frequent commenters, has highlighted the best blog posts of 2009 (as selected by their authors) at his own site, The Dancing Image. What makes this truly special is I am one of only three writers whose best work is selected by Joel himself. Go here to find out which post he selected.

Second, I am honored that Bill Ryan, whom I initially met as a fellow commenter on my favorite film blog Some Came Running, has presented me with the Kreativ Blogger award over at his own site, The Kind of Face You Hate. This prize has strings attached:

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
I did so at your site, but publicly, Thank you, Bill!

2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.

3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
See above.

4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
1. Spanish was my first language.
2. Spanglish is my language of choice when I'm back home in Miami.
3. I really do curse like Ricky Ricardo when my wife does some crazy thin', "Pero mira que esta mujer saca a uno de quicio."
4. When I was younger, I used to think I looked like Steve Austin (Lee Majors) of The Six Million Dollar Man. Of course, he is a rugged, fair-haired, blue-eyed man of some stature. And I was a dark, brown-eyed skinny weakling with big ears. The running in slow-motion during recess didn't help.
5. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek and David Lynch's work. Neither has really been of any use so far.
6. I am a great cook.
7. I've had the good fortune of meeting most of my heroes: Chris Isaak, Glenn Kenny, David Lynch, and William Shatner (I'm sure they wouldn't be happy to all be lumped together in this group). Only one left? BRUUUUUUCE!

5. Nominate 7 Kreative Bloggers.
Jason Bellamy at The Cooler
Joel Bocko at The Sun's Not Yellow
Jim Emerson at Scanners
Farran, the Siren at Self-Styled Siren
Ryan Kelly at Medfly Quarantine
Larry, That Little Round-Headed Boy at TLRHB
Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter

If I didn't mention you, it's probably because you've already been nominated.

6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
See above.

7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.
I'm going to refrain from doing so, since I hate making people feel obligated to follow up on these memes. Instead, I encourage you to visit the blogs I've highlighted here since they are the ones which most inspire me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Film Preservation Blogathon

For those who haven't heard, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme, aka The Siren, at The Self-Styled Siren are hosting a blogathon, from February 14 - 21, about a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. Marilyn and Farran explain it better at their respective blogs, here and here.

Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles has set up a blog where banners and the commercial (above) for the blogathon can be found entitled For the Love of Film. As he explains on his own site:
The blogathon will be run in conjunction with the National Film Preservation Foundation. In their own words:

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. Growing from a national planning effort led by the Library of Congress, the NFPF began operations in 1997. We work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

So please help out, advertise, contribute a post or whatever else you can think to do. [Above] is the first official commercial I put together for the blogathon that you can embed onto your own homepage. The music was written and recorded by yours truly, everything else is public domain. The movie still of the two men at the table is from Ernst Lubitsch's The Patriot, a 1929 film now sadly lost forever. The Greta Garbo film is A Woman of Affairs, a film restored years ago but still not available on DVD. It can be viewed here in its entirety however.
Couldn't have said it better myself, Greg.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Movie Review: Invictus (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Outside of the racial turmoil that still embroils South Africa in Clint Eastwood's Invictus stand Madiba, one-time South African activist and former president of that country, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman); and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of the South African Springboks, the national rugby union team that won the World Cup in 1995—kindred spirits in their respect for the power of sports to unite people of all colors, creeds, and social classes. The politics and personalities that Eastwood (Gran Torino) introduces in the first third of the film, the details of life in post-apartheid South Africa that populate its second third, all seem to revolve around Mandela at first. But Eastwood, whose attempts at structural unconventionality often backfire as his movies wrap up in the last third, creates a satisfying sports film by using the preceding details to set-up an emotional release in a climactic rugby sequence led by Damon's Pienaar.

Invictus begins with Mandela taking office, all too conscious of residual racism on both sides of the South African divide even as he seems to blithely pursue his goal of racial harmony. He sees the strife even within his own staff, Eastwood illustrating it a little too earnestly in the internal discord between Madiba's black and white bodyguards (their chief played with scene-stealing charisma by Tony Kgoroge—who nearly reframes the film's cast hierarchy as a third lead). Springbok captain Pienaar sees the effects of Mandela's changes played out in his own home, where his father has little hesitation in criticizing the disappearance of apartheid in front of the family's black servant. And he is all too aware of the disdain the blacks have for the Springbok team and their colors, remnants of South Africa's former white dominance. They openly deride the team at their rugby tournaments. But Pienaar knows that Chester Williams (McNeil Hendricks) the team's only black player is accepted by his teammates without reluctance. So he knows the potential for reconciliation exists and understands why Mandela meets with him, inspires him to push his teammates to their maximum as South Africa hosts the 1995 World Cup. And it is here, where Eastwood's (nearly too) straightforward style and the grand nobility of the movie's themes collide giving us a powerful release in the third act's climactic rugby game.

The game sequence is where Eastwood closes the circle on all the dramatic tension he has been setting up. Madiba's bodyguards finally seem to be working together well enough to be attuned to their chief's concern that the rugby match is the perfect place for an assassination attempt. A black child that the film has been following for some time—too poor to get into the game—loiters near the stadium's police presence to listen to the match as it plays out over the radio. Pienaar rallies his players to withstand the expected rout by New Zealand's All-Blacks (in a film full of nice moments, Eastwood uses one to include the All-Blacks' traditional Maori war dance used to intimidate opponents before international matches). He then pays off what little knowledge the viewer has accumulated about the confounding game of rugby to unfurl a sports sequence—strike that—an action sequence that is never once confusing; devoid of the close-up quick cutting that usually leaves today's audiences unsure of what just happened. One never loses the grip on the stadium or playing field's geography as Eastwood follows up on all the parallel plot developments.

Meanwhile, Mandela presides over the game from his private box, a messianic presence not unlike Freeman's portrayal of God in Bruce Almighty. Many are mistaking Eastwood's Invictus to be a sort of biopic, a look at a critical moment in the life of Madiba. It's no wonder considering the scenery-chewing perfomance by Freeman, who acts like he took Mandela's assertion that only he could play the leader a little too seriously. Freeman's performance is writ so large on the screen, that it almost eclipses the key central development on which the film hinges.

The only time one gets a true sense of the man behind the public persona is when Pienaar visits Mandela's prison cell at Robben Island, where he spent a good deal of his sentence after he was arrested for his activism. Damon really sells the impact of Mandela's movement on his generation of Afrikaners. The deference he exudes in Freeman's presence gives way to a stirring cocktail of regret, contempt, guilt, and respect in the scene where Pienaar stretches his arms across the length and breadth of the tiny cell measuring the small space while acknowledging the grandeur of the spirit that resided within its walls.

No, the performance at the center of Invictus is actually a quiet but visceral one by Damon as Pienaar. Pienaar is, after all, the character most affected by the changes in South Africa after Mandela helps bring an end to apartheid and ascends to the presidency. Within the story, Mandela is simply the agent of change that advances the story. So those maligning Invictus for its simplistic depiction of Madiba are failing to comprehend why this film works. At its heart, this sports drama is inspired by Mandela rather than about him.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Best Films of the 00s: 2003

by Tony Dayoub

Happy New Year to all. Due to some childcare issues over the course of the holidays posts have been a little slower than usual, but they should be picking up some speed this month. Continuing my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, today I spotlight my favorite films of 2003. This year was a particularly weak year for cinema in my opinion, so you might see some unusual entries. Some reminders: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I never saw it; also, if I already wrote a review for it, I'll simply refer back to the original review. At the end of the month, I'll post my ten best for 2009. I will then follow up with my 10 best films of the past decade.

And now, in alphabetical order, the best films of 2003...

Dogville, director Lars von Trier - Nicole Kidman carries this movie in a performance I feel safe in calling brave. Here, she is put through the wringer by von Trier (Europa), who stages the story like a black box theater production, its set sparingly delineated with chalk and the bare minimum of props. The staging serves the dual purpose of detaching you emotionally from the harrowing treatment of Kidman's Grace and focuses your attention on the spectacular acting by the stellar ensemble cast: Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Željko Ivanek, Chloe Sevigny, and Stellan Skarsgård. An indictment of America's small-town libertarians, it offended many at the time of its release but has only grown more relevant with the advent of Beck, Palin, the Tea-Partiers, and other populist movements that encourage ignorance and close-mindedness.

The Dreamers, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci - Review here.

Elephant, dir. Gus Van Sant - A disquieting look at a fictional school shooting inspired by the tragic events at Columbine in 1999. Van Sant (Milk) seems to stop time by keying in on several moments leading up to the shooting, playing and replaying them from different perspectives. What emerges is an empathetic look at the victims and the killers even while Van Sant manages to never excuse the murderers for their crime. While he implies that the teen killers' alienation from their schoolmates may have been a contributing cause, he also takes pains to emphasize that all the other teenagers suffer some form of alienation from one another, and they don't resort to the same act.

Hulk, dir. Ang Lee - This is the closest a movie gets to a superhero art film. Lee (Brokeback Mountain) focuses on the psychological underpinnings of the rage that fuels the green giant (daddy issues, which also plague his girlfriend Betty). Eric Bana is solid as Bruce Banner, as are the rest of the cast (Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas, and Nick Nolte) in their respective roles. Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) supplies the dark but nuanced cinematography. Lee reserves any comic-book flourishes for the inspired split-screen editing—simulating the layouts of Marvel's graphic novels—until... he nearly demolishes any critical good will with the third act and its cartoon histrionics. Flawed, with moments of greatness.

Kill Bill: Vol.1, dir. Quentin Tarantino - So there's this cinematic enfant terrible whose talent is fairly obvious despite what his detractors would have you believe. But while he's been out enjoying all of his accolades his output has been pretty thin. Six years after his last film, he comes with an exciting—if super-longish—samurai-western pastiche, and you think, I don't know when he'll do another one... Let's split this film into two and really get more bang for the buck. What could have been one lean, mean, epic film, is now two slightly bloated half-films. That's my problem with this Tarantino movie, but alas, 2003... not a great year. So this still rather entertaining film makes it on here for its clever genre-bending. And you'll definitely see Vol.2 on the next year's list because it is vastly superior to this first part.

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola - Does it really matter what Bill Murray whispers into Scarlett Johansson's ear at the end of Sofia Coppola's love letter to Tokyo? Only in that it preserves the thin sliver of intimacy these two platonic soulmates share during the fleeting moments in which their travels intersect. Coppola (Marie Antoinette) perfectly captures the feeling of dislocation one feels as a stranger in a strange land, especially one as quirky as Tokyo, which—as portrayed here, at least—feels like a refracted Bizarro-version of the US at its most indulgent.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, dir. Peter Weir - Weir (The Truman Show) gives us a humanistic take on war that, paradoxically, staunchly defends the concept of honor in battle. Russell Crowe is at his most charismatic as "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise during the Napoleonic Wars. Just as in Patrick O'Brian's original novels, Weir gives plenty of time to the unique and insightful relationship between Aubrey and the ship's physician, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), unlikely friends that bond over their shared love of music. The soundtrack is thus a prominent character in the film, and deservedly so. If ever a film demanded a sequel, it is this one.

Open Range, dir. Kevin Costner - Another genre offering that captures the subtle nuances of male relationships, Open Range is an elegiac western that takes its time to unfold and a surprising return to form for the actor/director of Dances with Wolves. Costner's chemistry with costar Robert Duvall is one of the pleasures of watching this film. In fact, the introspective quality of their friendship permeates throughout the rest of the character interactions, aided greatly by the atypical cast of Annette Benning, Michael Gambon, Diego Luna, and Kim Coates (as the most menacing but shortest-lived gunslinger in Western cinema).

Swimming Pool, dir. François Ozon - Where did all the erotic thrillers go? Once a staple of nineties cinema, it has virtually disappeared outside of the softcore direct-to-video realm. But Ozon capitalizes on the history of the former sex symbol, Charlotte Rampling (here appearing quite matronly), pitting her against French kitten Ludivine Sagnier in a sexual power struggle of a sort. Questions of identity are raised as Rampling is by turns repulsed, attracted, and fascinated by the nubile Sagnier. And most refreshingly, age and experience seem to trump youth and potency in the end.

X2, dir. Bryan Singer - What? Two superhero movies in the same year? Well, as I said, it was that kind of year. But Singer gets points here for achieving what many comics fans long thought impossible—fashioning a tight action adventure starring a team of super-powered beings that is coherent, exciting, and thoughtful. Singer delivers on the potential of the earlier, flawed X-Men, by playing up his own strengths with ensemble casts (The Usual Suspects) while spotlighting the mysterious background of the team's loner, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and bringing the allegorical allusions to homophobia to the foreground. One can only hope the upcoming Avengers film is anywhere near as good as this one, possibly the apex of its genre.

For more of this ongoing series, click here.