The problem of movies relying on visual effects is not only that it causes the movie to age rapidly, but that it becomes excessive, a crutch in place of story and acting. After all, productions don’t have infinite budgets. A dollar invested in the effects is a dollar not invested in the script. This is the problem with Avatar. The first ninety minutes are disorienting and immersive: we are being guided into Pandora in much the same way as Jake Sully. He becomes our Avatar for new experiences and new possibilities, for a new type of filmmaking.

And then the movie gets conventional and boring. Our eyes adjust to Pandora and we watch Sam Worthington strain to act under the motion capture suit before the plot devolves into a series of large, predictable, action sequences. Perhaps they’re filmed better than most, but that’s hardly the exciting, new world we were promised.

This is an even bigger problem in Altered States (1980). I’m now officially at risk of turning this into a William Hurt blog, but it’s worth mentioning his film debut. There are some truly unshakable parts in this movie, but the director, Ken Russel, overwhelms the story through his excessively psychedelic visuals.

The plot of the movie is both strong and weak: a scientist doing research on schizophrenics as a window on different understandings of consciousness becomes interested in sensory deprivation as a way of understanding the mystical experience. So far so good; there are some logical jumps here, but nothing too far out.

This part of the movie is grounded in the world of the scientists and the physical world is terrific. The set design is quietly terrifying: there’s nothing that’s too strange and out of place, but it’s discomfiting. The sensory deprivation chamber looks horrifying at the same time as it’s completely mundane. Everything is grimy. William Hurt, speaking to us from his chamber, does some great voice acting.

Then it gets ridiculous. Read the rest of this entry »

By a reasonably objective metric (academy award nominations), William Hurt ranks as one of the greatest film actors of all-time (he has four) and yet he makes no appearance on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars. On its own, this would be a triviality; many great actors fail to achieve mass consciousness. Perhaps I’m betraying my age, but has anyone ever gone to a movie just to experience the raw animal magnetism of Albert Finney? But, as we’ve mentioned many times, William Hurt owned the 1980s, starring in several of the decade’s biggest commercial and creative successes.

I thought about this the other day while watching Damages season 2 on DVD. There’s a scene where William Hurt’s character takes a polygraph. Hurt’s character is exactly the type of role for which he’s remembered: handsome without being charming, and cold without appearing calculating; uncertainty surrounds him. And Hurt is an expert at maximizing uncertainty. Watching him take the polygraph, you’re sure that he’s managed to pass the test while lying. When it comes back inconclusive, you’re almost surprised. Is he not as devious as I thought, or could he be telling the truth? There may only be a 5% chance that he’s telling the truth, but Hurt makes you consider it. In this way, he’s a great foil to Glenn Close whose skill is smiling as she stabs a knife in your back. She’s good at convincing other characters that she’s being honest, but not so good at staying a step ahead of viewers. Only the show’s jumbling of chronology allows those possibilities to slip in.

But again, the mystery that is William Hurt and his ownership (or: pwnage) of the 1980s. Read the rest of this entry »

Although literary critics will tell you that thematizing (to make thematic; to organize into themes) is often a bad idea, I’ve nonetheless been trying to thematize the Best Picture and Director nominees of 1986. It’s an odd-assortment of movies, to say the least. Two far-historical pictures (A Room with a View, The Mission), one set in the recent past (Platoon), two contemporary films (Children of a Lesser God, and Hannah and her Siters), and the most famous Lynch film, that (“the word I’m thinking of is”) Dickensian exploration of small-city U.S.A and its’ seedy underbelly. Undoubtedly one of my biggest problems is the 2-3 month break between seeing 5 of the movies and the last one this past weekend, but even without temporal considerations, 1986 remains a thematic challenge. Will one emerge as we evaluate the movies individually?

Wild Card:

Blue Velvet: I said most of what I wanted to say here in my post on Isabella Rosselini’s “Green Porno.” I’ll only add a few words about Dennis Hopper’s performance. Lynch and Hopper managed to create one of cinema’s greatest villains in this movie, on a par with Nicholson’s Joker or McDowell’s Alex DeLarge. But while those characters exist in worlds of pure imagination (to borrow Willy Wonka’s apt phrase), Hopper’s Frank is all the more terrifying because of its realistic tendencies. Though no-one would ever accuse Lynch of playing by the rules of verisimilitude or David Simon level realism, Frank very well could exist. He’s the perfect combination of the mundane and outlandish, vividly realized through Hopper’s divination of his own demons. Also one of cinema’s greatest explorations of the question, nay, theme of voyeurism. A-

Best Picture Nominees:

A Room with a View: I don’t know if I’d ever seen anything take itself so seriously as the beginning of this film, when all the characters discuss the need and meaning of the titular room. The comedy of manners is certainly all the funnier for it. It’s a shame that the movie can’t sustain the tone, succumbing to more pedestrian levity. Like Blue Velvet the movie can be seen as having a theme of exploration: the novelist played by Judi Dench disavows guide books and encourages real exploration, advice that many of the characters pick up. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Cecil is the antithesis of this principle, instead preferring to read books and experience the life of the mind with passive experiences of the real world. I wasn’t too impressed with this movie after the first 30 minutes when its tone reverted to a standard comedy of manners. B

Children of a Lesser God: The great run of William Hurt movies continues! Hurt plays a teacher drifter (an explorer!) who, after teaching speech therapy at all the top schools, has settled in what wikipedia tells me is New England (It was filmed in New Brunswick). I don’t believe that the movie is ever explicit on this point, and I prefer to think of it taking place in the Puget Sound. This movie suffers from the same problems as all 80’s William Hurt extravaganzas: sheer we-get-the-pointness (I apologize for my use of obscure academic jargon). Hurt’s 80’s movies are telegraphed from the get-go with nary a surprise. Still, Marlee Matlin is exceptional and deserving of her best actress award, and Hurt is William Hurt. And then there’s boomerang, what this website calls, “a more energetic gaudy pop tune” (we completely disagree on Children of a Lesser God and The Accidental Tourist, btw) and others have called the best movie musical scene ever. That would be “Singing in the Rain” in Singing in the Rain, but BA-BA-BA-Boomerang does inject some much needed energy into an often elegiac film. B- Read the rest of this entry »

1987: The Year in Pictures

November 14, 2007

One of the areas in which Yesterday’s Salad surely excels is verisimilitude. Not only do we feature commentary on the issues of the day (the strike, Anne Hathaway, pretty feet, and cereal) and have scads of saladeers covering all that is good with society, we also occasionally feature reviews of the best picture/best director nominees as the awards occasionally dominate my life like nothing else. Still, somewhere between 17 and 20 awards years into my project (and Nate’s project) of watching every nominee for these categories, it is safe to say that there have been very few years like 1987. It was a year when Hollywood came of age, found romance, embraced the passive, and did so mostly in the form of light comedies. In fact, I’m still mystified at just how bizarre the year actually was. For the purposes of my sanity, I’m kind of glad that it’s not 1987 all the time.


My Life as a Dog: As I mentioned in the 1988 review, the best way to describe most of the movies on this list is with the adje178_feature_350x180.jpgctives “light-hearted” and “charming.” And is there a movie more light-hearted and charming than My Life as a Dog? A coming of age story told against the backdrop of early cold war, semi-industrial Sweden, My Life as a Dog has been called one of the greatest movies ever made about children. In the Criterion essay, Michael Atkinson singled the movie out for its representations of “the contentious struggle to understand or at least withstand the bulldozing machinations of the adult world.” (see here) One of the ways this comes through is in the film’s structure, or rather it’s anti-structure. Like an anti-novel, the movie toys with the conventions of the act structure. Recognizable conflicts are avoided, and exchanged for other, more tangible struggles. The mother’s illness, which is in many ways the expected main conflict, is more of a pretense, a reason to explore the real conflict of displacement and fitting in. This theme is then further developed through the tomboy character, struggling with her emerging sexuality and its effect on her boyish life. Jacqueline Rose once said that Peter Pan, “shows innocence not as a property of childhood but as a portion of adult desire,” and the same mostly holds for My Life as a Dog. I say mostly because our protagonist’s innocence comes from his trust of others, an innocence that does not necessarily disappear with age, and his love of animals (see: Tony Soprano). Rose is right, in a sense; the childhood of My Life as a Dog is certainly an adult desire. Grade: A/A-


Fatal Attraction: There is some fa.gifdebate as to whether or not a director is the author of the movie (the auteur theory) or whether the writer should most correctly be termed the film’s author; as I’ve mentioned before, no-one gives credit to actors. In an article discussing this question, A Sanford and Michelle Wolf come to the conclusion that the director is at best a stylist, imparting a particular mis-en-scene and look on her film (source) and little more. If that is true, Fatal Attraction has pitch perfect direction. The movie is wonderfully executed: well acted, well set, and expertly paced. Adrian Lyne does an outstanding job with the pacing of this movie. It’s particularly impressive that many of these scenes still jolt us today, even after we’ve seen them mocked on some iteration of “I Love the 80’s.” But the most impressive thing about the movie is the way it walks the line between thriller and love story–which it is at heart. No matter how crazy Glenn Close gets, the palpability of her love is still present. A-

Read the rest of this entry »

1988: The Year in Pictures

November 5, 2007

With Nate’s visit to scenic Somerville now one for the books, another year of Academy Award reviews can be added to the YS’ archives. In fact, 2 years can now be added, but given the bizarre absence of a record for 1990 (contra 1991 and 1989), I’ll hold off hyping the 1987 list until it has somehow made its way from my computer screen to yours. And, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, as I promised in the 1991 post, I’ll one day get around to adding grades for the other years.

But let us now praise famous films and take a look into the not-too-recent-or-useable past.


A Fish Called Wanda: Rather unlike today, the academy of wanda_200_200.jpgyesteryear used to regularly nominate two, or even three comedies, for the major awards. Perhaps things were just simpler in a world with history, without great conflicts that necessitated drama after drama. Either way, A Fish Called Wanda is really funny. Not just lighthearted or charming (adjectives that will come to dominate the 1987 list), but legitimately funny. John Cleese and Kevin Kline standout in a cast of standouts, and Charles Crichton was justly nominated for managing the cast and coaxing the best out of his actors. But what’s truly interesting about Fish is the timelessness of its humour. The best jokes and set-ups would be funny in any generation; almost nothing is dependent on immediate cultural references, and, if it is, the joke is immediately transparent. Justly on everyone’s mothers list of top comedies. Grade: A

The Last Temptation of Christ…has not aged well. Willem Dafoe is still excellent, and David Bowie’s Pilate is far superior to Jeff Ament’s. But Harvey Keitel is horribly miscast as Judas and the movie at times feels as if it’s going through the motions, portraying one biblical scene after another solely for the sake of having them in the movie (this predictability is really the problem encountered by all Jesus movies). Still, it’s hard not to appreciate Peter Gabriel’s score, and Scorsese’s gusto is evident. B/B+

Best Picture Nominees:

Working Girl: The second comedy on the list, 000980_13.jpgWorking Girl tells the story of a plucky secretary’s (invented) rise to dealmaker. Think The Secret of My Success with the girl-power of Veronica Mars. Actually, I’m not sure what WG (no Robinson) is trying to say about the place of women in the workplace. Tess’ boss (the excellent Sigourney Weaver) is the only female executive in sight and she tries to steal Melanie Griffith’s idea, lest she too succeed. Though the movie would seem to be acclaiming equality there is still the bizarre suggestion that only one woman can succeed at a time, or that the only way for a woman to succeed in business is to be conniving and manipulative. Perhaps I’m reading into the movie, but perhaps not. Then again, the movie may be a mirror and not a lamp, reflecting commonly held ideas while arguing against the culture that would pit two obviously qualified women against one another. Also, Harrison Ford makes even Mr. Hammerskjold’s heart go a flutter–quite a feat considering his alleged Asian fetish. A- Read the rest of this entry »