Watching the State of the Union tonight last night, I realized just how arbitrary our units of measurement are. Why should the President address the country every year? Why should he do so with such pageantry? Now, when this last year is so insignificant, with this president appearing so bereft of ambition, is their any good reason that he should be given such a forum for his increasingly diminuted ideas? Especially when he has the right to interrupt all regularly scheduled programming whenever he sees fit. Wouldn’t it make more sense if he only addressed America immediately after an election? (Please, no one suggest the constitution as an answer.)

We spend a lot of time talking about this year‘s Best Picture, but one year is just as arbitrary a time-span when evaluating movies as it is with evaluating presidencies. Nothing points out this arbitrariness like foreign movies. With different release dates in different countries, it’s not uncommon to see some foreign movies nominated in different years. The most recent test case for this is The Lives of Others, which was nominated at the Bavarian Film Awards in 2005, the German Film Awards for 2006, last year’s Academy Awards, and this year’s BAFTAs (more on this great movie in a minute). In the art world, the best works are frequently displayed at a Biennale, (or Biennial if you refuse to inflect your English with loan words. Mon Dieu!) and other exhibitions are self contained and last only for short periods of time. The reason I bring this up is our bizarre appellation of some movies as “Art Movies.” While this mostly refers to their stylistics (often disparagingly), it begs the question, do these movies have a qualitative connection to art?

It goes without saying that, as a mass produced object, movies lack the uniqueness of art. As Geoffrey Hartman wrote in his autobiography modern movies also lack the eventness of art:

For all my adolescent years…the movies remained a special treat, a near-festive occasion like somone’s birthday…Now, every day, every hour, I can surf several channels as well as visit the big screen. The result is indifference to what used to be a magical occasion, a typical blunting toward the often frenetic realism of the medium, so that little of an early eagerness is left.

It is no great claim to say that movies exist on that boundary between “high” art and popular “low” culture. Or, that their very existence probably proves that there are no such categories.

I ask the question because The Diving Bell and the Butterfly insists. The movie’s cinematography and bravado editing demand that we consider the film as art. It consistently plays with questions of color, perception, and placement and the artist-director Julian Schnabel described the film by saying,

“It seems to me the issues that come up in this film are issues I’ve been thinking about my whole life — death, claustrophobia, the limits that are put on people, what seeing is, what unconsciousness is, observing observation,” he says. “How do you escape the ordinariness of your life and what does it mean to make art?” (source) Read the rest of this entry »

Every blog has its day in the sun. Every blog also has its day in the shade, and for us that day was yesterday. After being the darling of the New New Media for a few fortnights, YS’ traffic has suddenly become more like the darjeeling limited: a lot of primping, a lot of quirkiness, and the occasional mark of genius. I can only posit a few reasons for our sudden decline:

1) The Oscars hypothesis: We’d picked up a lot of readers looking for semi-literate film reviews and oscar odds, but with Dash out campaigning for the Biden-Thompson unity ticket, we’ve recently become negligent in our duties as source. So, to correct: YS went 4/5 on picture nominees missing Michael Clayton (we picked Into the Wild). What happened?

a) Into the Wild was not that good. As with Dreamgirls last year, academy voters will ultimately recognize that a movie is not that good (I hope). Then again, these are the same people who nominated Titanic, Return of the King, The Accidental Tourist, and The English Patient. I really don’t know what captivated America about that movie. In the years since, everyone has become Elaine.

b) Never believe the buzz. Atonement (which we picked) seemed down for the count about a week and a half ago, and Juno also seemed on the ropes. In their place: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (review to come) and, yes, Into the Wild. When push comes to shove, go with the movie your mom and dad told you you had to see.

c) Never pet against the Clooney. Not when the movie is really good.

d) And the best movies the academy probably never considered nominating were: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Superbad, Knocked Up, Meduzot, and King of Kong.

2) The Heath Ledger hypothesis: I’m not going to say much about the death of Mr. Ledger, who really was quite an excellent actor. In fact, the only person upon whose death we have given comment is Jean Baudrillard. I actually think that Mr. Baudrillard would be rather pleased with the way people are responding to Mr. Ledger’s death. A woman in the times claimed that she felt she knew him. Celebrities really are that close to us these days. But Baudrillard would probably be most interested in this: emails from the dead!

3) The Mandrake hypothesis: with America divided, Americans want to know whom to vote for, and who won’t be president. One man gave them answers. Whither?

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 »

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.