After months of reading about Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I finally went to see it. Before I begin, I should say that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is probably the best title for a movie since Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead, and ranks just behind Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid on the list of greatest movie titles of all time. But the main reason I was so excited to see Devil was that it had some of the best reviews in recent memory. By that I mean it’s reviews were some of the more entertaining pieces of film criticism I’d read in a long time. A.O. Scott wrote in The Times that, “Mr. Lumet takes what might have been a claustrophobic genre exercise and gives it both moral weight and social insight,” (link) and Roger Ebert started his review by saying, “Sidney Lumet‘s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is such a superb crime melodrama that I almost want to leave it at that. To just stop writing right now and advise you to go out and see it as soon as you can. I so much want to avoid revealing plot points that I don’t even want to risk my usual strategy of oblique hints. You deserve to walk into this one cold.” Ebert even named Devil the 3rd best movie of this year, the best year for movies in recent memory. And though I can’t match the eloquent prose of Ebert or Scott, I will try to offer a few comments on the film.

Almost every reviewer considers the movie a (re)tour de force for the director. Once upon a time, Sidney Lumet made 12 Angry Men, Network, and one of the most influential crime films of all time, Dog Day Afternoon. A few years ago, he won a lifetime achievement oscar. Everyone agrees how shocking it is that such a prolific director, one so far removed from his prime, made a movie as deliciously, yes, even devilishly, great as Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

I’m just not sure that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a great movie, but ultimately that will come down to how you view the movie’s acting. The frequently topless Marissa Tomei gives one of the best performances of her career as PSH’s wife, literally and figuratively bearing all in scene after scene. Also, after this movie, I’m willing to say that Ethan Hawke is one of the best actors of his generation. But I’m not sure what to make of PSH’s performance as Andy. As in Charlie Wilson’s War, PSH is playing against every other performance he’s ever given. With every move, PSH seems to be referencing a quirk he brought to a different character. He cycles through different impressions of Andy without ever settling on a specific portrayal. The problem may be that Philip Seymour Hoffman has just set the bar too high. The acting in the movie is very showy, always on the cusp of overacting. Whether or not you feel the emotional intensity is deserved will determine what you feel about the movie. Read the rest of this entry »

HB and SB+

Often the Ciceronian has been forced to sit through many Saturnalias, Bacchanals, Orgies, and other such festivities, in which he is subjected to perhaps the worst form of entertainment in all sorts of manners, ranging from the minutely terrible to the overarchingly destructive of which there are not indeed any words to describe. While erstwhile, I would indeed concern myself with rhetoric, I find that the Muses frequently force me to turn to invective, pushed by the most terrible words and ghastly entertainments of what is called an age, to that most terrible of all forms which the rhetor himself cannot control and soon finds his own words turned against him. Thus, in keeping with the overall movie theme of which this blog has turned itself in so many manners and ways, lest he find himself discreetly out of step with the most excellent sorts of contemporaries with which he, being the light of the republic has arranged around himself.

Finding himself lost in the general deluge with which our world celebrates the birth of a crucified barbarian who purports to be the logos of the all-estimable Plato, the Ciceronian is on a frequent glut for entertainment. He looks in all manner of places, but finds that unlike the most noble and excellent pursuits to which he usually turns himself throughout the course of the year, of a cultured and learned sort of light play most suiting to an exceptionally noble mind, he is sunk into the very dreary depths of that most destructive entertainment franchise, the holiday movie.

It is not that it is impossible to make a holiday movie. A Wonderful Life is a good movie, despite all the efforts of the Aeschylean-Frank-Capra-hating-chorus. White Christmas is also lovely and my slaves tell me, that Home Alone was also a unique expression of the joy of the Christmas season, although I myself, could not bear such a base movie in any manner whatsoever. Nay, what I cry out against are the contemptible laughing stocks which purport to be holiday movies that appear towards the beginning of Novem mensem and seek to capture the holiday spirit by means of some terrible ploy, unpoetic, unlyric, plotless, Museless, besotted and beshitted pieces of drivel. Every year the studios vomit forth some of this trash, never just one, but always more, always vaguely comic and always centered around Santa and his merry little band of henchmen. No greater criminal transgression has ever been made against the arts, the neoteroi pale in comparison, even the terrible crimes of that wretch Catiline, are as naught, in respect to this unendurable travesty which fills our mindless age with its shrieking holiday madness.

They fail because these movies operate on a formula. There is some sort of holiday related problem, which must be resolved, by means of holiday cheer, and then all will be well again, as the hero saves the day and everyone hugs each other and it is all wonderful. I, as a youth, was oft misled by such drivel, much as a whore may mislead a young man down ways which the more severe and better men of old would indeed not wish. I, once, thought to win over the terrors of the dark of Decem Mensem by means of a light and jovial spirit, an affinity for a certain red and white striped hook, a not middling love for a fat man in red, and a not total disassociation with certain candles over the course of several nights. Yet I found these things to be as untrue and as empty as the very movies which foster such foolish discourse upon those both young and impressionable, such as I, not yet a formidable orator, at that moment was. Now I hold to doctrines mostly Platonic in origin and in contemplation of the sublime, often am able to provide my own lights, in the times we now face. There is however to me a great fear that the very sort of mistake which once moved me in such a manner, may perhaps lead others down this seemingly honeyed path, and for the sake of others, I lead down words of the most keen sort.

While I am somewhat overcame by the disgust and spite I often feel, naturally being rooted in me, as a rhetor attached to the very highest of things, for this time of year, it may most unjustly be said by those men who too little know the true good and ill of things that there is in me a most base and vile nature, because of my liberty in speaking against the sorts of things which all in an imagined consensus purport to hold dear. Yet I speak, merely as one who knows what is good and what is shameful in respect to the labors of the mind and too long have we been plagued by these terrible afflictions masked in the garments of holiday cheer. Is it too much to object to what is unsuitable in respect to its making, ill composed, designed to be incontrovertible and for the purpose of a few swift sesterces? This thing I think wholly vile and myself, not restrained in speaking of what vice that is indeed deserving of the most harsh words.

In the article “The New Yorker, a Magazine or a Club?” from Nouveaux Fragments du Puzzle American, written before a time when playboyclubhef.jpgcommunities were imagined, the author comes to the conclusion that though there is no such thing as a New Yorker club, “we may say…that all The New Yorker readers…form a virtual community which is unimaginable in the case of Time, Newsweek, and New York Magazine, the other magazine with a similar name.” This virtual community is contrasted with Playboy, a magazine that actually opened clubs around the country and thus allowed its readers to occupy a physical space with real membership and privileges of membership. Few magazines would dare to open such a club today (although Hustler is giving it a go), but perhaps one should. Now is a season when popular discussion of a film is more likely to focus on its box office prospects than on its critical merits, and a time when Americans are conflicted about whether their tastes should be reactionary (e.g. 80’s revivalism, Books, Christopher Hitchens, Yesterday’s Salad, and/or Hilary Clinton) or radical (2010’s futurism, Amazon Kindle/Sony E-Reader, Notwithabangbutawhimper, the upcoming spin-off New New Salad, and/or Barry Obama Joe Biden). Only one magazine reflects this delicate balance b/w postironicsnark-ism and our latent critical sensibilities. It is a time when we all belong to the same club: Entertainment Weekly.

Lo, such is the genius of The Shaw Report! Every week EW exploits our demands for newness with its dogged pursuit of not only the new-it-thing but the new-five-minutes-ago-thing and the new-out-thing. True, some may argue that only the cyclical demands of fashion keep this from being overly dependent on binaries, but those naysayers fail to appreciate the intertextuality at play. Though billed as an innocuous go at pop-insouciance, EW recalls the Shaw Report, the British Mandate’s inquiry into the 1929 Arab Riots in Palestine with every printing. There is no justice in the world of popularity, just as there is no justice in the Levant.

EW has also been a place where struggling authors can have their work published. Not too long ago, the magazine took a chance on an upstart long-hand writer named Stephen King, and gave him a column. Sure, they stuck his feuilleton at the back of the magazine, but the fact remains they gave him a shot. Read the rest of this entry »

I haven’t enjoyed action movies for some time. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, and my taste in movies has matured, so that I no longer feel satisfied by the whizzing cinematography and glib violence found in a typical action movie. But at the same time, the grand cliché of the aged – they don’t make ’em like they used to – might hold some truth. If one defines an action movie as a film in which the on-screen spectacle is of equal or greater value than the plot, and charitably excluding the sub-genres of superhero (Batman Begins), sci-fi (The Matrix), and historical (war movies not starring Mel Gibson, with the exception of Gallipoli), the last decent action movies I saw were Casino Royale and Ronin. Ronin is even pushing our plot requirement.

This is not to say that there has been a paucity of action movies. On the contrary, big-budget action movies are as readily available as Arby’s sandwiches. It’s just that as action movies seem to be incorporating more and more advanced computer graphics, their plots are steadily devolving. Not only do there seem to be more and more movies made from games, but action movies are beginning to rip out parts of games wholesale – supposedly, in the Doom movie (no, I didn’t see it, and I won’t see it) the camera transitions to a first person perspective for a hearty chunk of the last part of the film. So that it looks just like a video game. Which you paid 10 dollars to watch someone else play.

On the other end of the spectrum, video games seem to be on the evolutionary rise. Games have long taken inspiration from movies, and as games rapidly approach film in terms of visual verisimilitude, they are taking plot and other cinematic elements as well. For instance, Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4 is basically your own personal action movie, as demonstrated by this lengthy clip below. The game’s graphics are amazing (though the quality of YouTube doesn’t do it justice), and while its plot won’t win it any Academy Awards (Russian Ultranationalists and Middle Eastern terrorists working together? Mon dieu!) the ability to actually participate in all of those action movie scenes is remarkable fun.

While serious movies don’t have much to worry about from video games (a real-life My Dinner With Andre video game is years away), action movies either need to start evolving plots, or go the way of the dodo.

••• For those who couldn’t imagine anything more profoundly boring than watching other people play video games (or, the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter films), watch from the beginning to around minute two, then from minute six to the end.

After turning down offers to write for Yesterday’s Salad, and/or be a journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine, 1976-1979, former YS fav Aaron Sorkin decided that the best way to resurrect his fading career was with a political comedy, Charlie Wilson’s War. Charlie has many of the flaws of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (too much focus on God and religion) and not enough of the strengths (there are barely any scenes where characters chat while walking down hallways), and from time to time the movie is incredibly heavy-handed. Still, Charlie Wilson’s War is likeable, and if it doesn’t reach the highs of seasons 2 or 3 of The West Wing, it’s about as good as your average episode of Sports Night.

Tom Hanks gives a very good performance as Charlie Wilson. Wilson is not a very demanding part, but Hanks gives it his all nonetheless, becoming the character. He stops being Tom Hanks about 10 minutes in. Except when he cries. Julia Roberts looks fantastic and does a nice job delivering her lines. Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent and quite funny, bringing a devilish playfulness to the part. The performance is almost a parody of his character in Mission: Impossible III; both characters are players in the game of global espionage, and both have the means to kill at a moment’s notice, but CWWPSH (whew!) is a deadpan bureaucrat. He jokes, but he’s almost more terrifying because we believe he can deliver on his threats. (Plus, there’s no Ethan Hunt to save us.)

The movie falters near the end. If No Country for Old Men was unsatisfying because everything was so open, Charlie Wilson’s War has the opposite problem of trying to make everything nice and neat. The action stops and everyone starts making speeches about what it all means, about the problems of getting involved in other countries and then disappearing, about the problems of wars fought for God, about the problems of arming Afghanistan. The themes themselves are unavoidable and worth telling; the problem is in the execution. Sorkin underestimates his audience. The people going to his movies are literate liberals who already hold his political views. He doesn’t need to hammer the point home as much as he does.

Charlie Wilson’s War will probably not be nominated for Best Picture. Then again, far worse movies have been.

Note: There has been a lot of movie coverage around here recently. My next post will probably have something to do with the Simpsons, Mass Transit, words, and alcohol. My plan is to review as many of the Academy Award favorites as I can. Please let me know if this is a good idea, or a bad idea.