I’ve been a fan of David O. Russell for some time now. Back in the day, my dad and I went to see Flirting with Disaster in the theater, which proved quite embarrassing for him after we ran into some family friends scandalized by the fact that my dad had taken me to see such a risque film. I emerged unscathed, which, now that I think about it, is remarkable considering how embarrassing it was to see The 40 Year Old Virgin with my mother. I loved Three Kings which is easily one of the best war movies ever made, even if the end seems a trifle out of place, and I enjoyed what he tried to do in I Heart Huckabees. Earlier this month the New York Times printed an article about the lack of films made by the “hot” directors of the 90’s, and Mr. Russell featured prominently in that article. Fresh from the Times approved knowledge that there was no new Russell movie in sight, I decided to go and watch his first movie, Spanking the Monkey, probably the greatest modern incest dramedy.

[btw, I couldn’t resist the urge to see if our title had somehow made it into the OED. Alas, the closest search term is “spankled,” a rare variant form of “spangled,” a ppl. adj meaning speckled.]

The movie’s basic plot is this: our young protagonist is forced by his almost unbelievably evil travelling-salesman/philandering father to care for his broken-legged mother instead of working at the Surgeon General’s office for the summer. As the mother and son bond, each develop incestuous feelings for the other, eventually succumbing. Though it was his first feature, Russell had the skill to change the movie’s tone post-coitus: before the movie was light comedy, while afterwards the movie veers to the dramatic with comedic elements thrown in, often in ways that belie the seriousness of the moment. The plot changes from the Taboo-esque porn archetype of an incestuous relationship to a real exploration of the characters’ psyches. The fact that the movie stays a unified whole is remarkable.

Russell made the movie for under 100,000 dollars and at times it certainly feels that way. While some parts of the movie were a bit uneven, Spanking the Monkey is a very good movie. Seeing it makes the Times article all the more salient.

I saw this on The New Republic blog yesterday and decided it needed to be shared with the good readers of Yesterday’s Salad. Here’s the 1982 single, “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” that could easily serve as Barry Obama’s campaign theme song (Mandrake will have more on this topic as soon as he returns from his big game hunt in the dark continent).

Oh, and in the world of further ridiculousness, here’s a link to an article in The New York Times written by Mary-Kate Olsen. Sigh…another win for Fox News.

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While we Americans continue to make video games about sex, violence, cars and other such nonsense, the Japanese are apparently making PS3 Railfan games. Not only that, the game quite prominently features your Chicago Brown Line in unbelievable detail.

I can’t get over how well the designers capture both the majesty of Chicago…

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…and the insanity of the Loop Elevated track structure.

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They even remember to refer to the Brown Line as

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(Btw, you know these are game shots because there are a) no homeless people, b) the Brown Line runs on schedule, and c) no one would ever graffiti something nice about the CTA)

More about the game (which is sadly available only in Japan) here. Still, it’s probably time for me to buy a PS3 and an import of the game.

Beaten to the Punch

February 27, 2007

I was going to mention this last week, but I forgot, and now the nefarious Annie of Jewbiquitous fame has beaten me to it. Click here for a description of the funniest moment in last week’s 30 Rock.

For this week’s installment of Who Should Write Superman? we at Yesterday’s Salad would like to welcome Zadie Smith to our pantheon of new Kryptonian Scribes. This might seem to be somewhat of a controversial choice among the Saladeers, as not everyone here at the Salad is enamored with her works, as at least one of us has openly referred to White Teeth as merely “okay,” (note: not me), and as devotees may have noted, we’ve already had a woman, and featuring more might be seen as overcompensating for something. However, many of the criticisms which are frequently lobbed at her oeuvre are in truth strengths dearly needed by the aging Superman franchise.

1. Hype. Much ado was made about Ms. Smith’s debut work, White Teeth. While the sheer volume of this hype and the total silence of any criticism toward the novel was enough to turn some new readers off of the book (viz. impossible expectations, as above), it also left the novels that Smith wrote afterward in the lurch, as if all of the criticism that had been owed to the former was being launched altogether against her sophomore works. Yet, unlike many of the other young authors whose debut novels have been met with similar acclaim, Smith’s following books, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, are actually pretty good, unlike the grand swan-dive come nose-dive that Jonathan Safran Foer took from Everything is Illuminated to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Thus, we are ensured that even though Smith’s first issue of Superman: Metropolis’ Lonely Hour might be hailed as a sure sign of the Second Coming, at least the rest of the series will be pretty good.

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The Lives of Others

February 26, 2007

Probably the biggest upset at the Academy Awards last night (certainly not called by yours truly) was Das Leben der Anderen over Pan’s Labyrinth for Best Foreign Language film. I shouldn’t be too surprised; Leben got the most positive New Yorker review of any movie I’ve ever seen. Both were terrific movies, although Leben may be more universal. More than Pan’s Labyrinth, which explored the effects and world of a specific if forgotten tragedy (Franco’s Spain), Leben cut to the heart of human relations in general. Anthony Lane ended his New Yorker review with these words, “You might think that “The Lives of Others” is aimed solely at modern Germans…A movie this strong, however, is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist für uns. It’s for us.”

The Lives of Others success is interesting within the context of recent European cinema. Last year’s winner of the major German Film award was Alles Auf Zucker, a lighthearted family tale about a secular Jewish petty criminal and his Chassidic relatives. Beyond this, however, the movie was “about” the struggle for reunification, about the gaps that still remain between East and West despite a decade of efforts to fill them. In many ways, the movie’s point is that the gap can only be bridged by the humanization of the former other; that it is necessary to leave aside Government programs of reunification, and instead to focus on the humanity of those beyond the wall through human confrontation. It is about coming together through personal experience.

Michael Hanecke’s Cache also dealt with these topics. I won’t go into heavy analysis because that would involve too many spoilers, however, I will say that the idea of the other is at the forefront of the film. In many ways, the movie argues for human recognition of the other via interpersonal relationships. At the very least, the failure to confront the other is the films starting-point.

These movies are all of an ilk that seems to be missing in current American cinema. Unlike during the 1970’s, American directors seem unwilling to confront America’s sordid recent past. It’s a surprising gap given the amount of material to work with, and our receptiveness to foreign films that deal with these topics. Perhaps its time for a new self awareness in our cinema.