DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of American Beauty, Fight Club  Being John Malkovich     The Straight Story  The Contender  New Port South  You Can Count on Me



Release Date:  188

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 120 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company:   Dreamworks

Director; Writer: Sam Mendes

Producer: Dan Jinks

Cast:    Kevin Spacey, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper; Written by: Alan Ball;

Technical: Full Widescreen

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: gays in military (at end of A.B.)



Movie Review of American Beauty

Dreamworks Pictures; 120 Minutes; MPAA Rating: R (borders on NC-17)

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper; Written by: Alan Ball; 10/10; Panavision

Also reviewed:

We've all heard the Sunday school lessons about the emptiness of "materialism." We read the pontifications of Sinclair Lewis in Babbitt. But this film really makes us feel the emptiness of it all, of a life driven by conformity to "the American Dream," of setting up a heterosexually-parented family with all the proper material possessions, of reconciling the need to achieve for oneself and put family first. There are many great lines, such as when the wife tells her inquisitive daughter, "you can never depend upon anyone except yourself."

And this movie provides a good Scott Meredith Writing to Sell lesson on how to transfer philosophical ideas into compelling fiction. Spacey tries to break free and three people wind up plotting to kill him. Which one actually does it, is the viewer's guess.

Along the way, there are compelling scenes. A spiffy stand-and-model type of fine young man gets hired by his employer as an efficiency expert and pushes him out the door. Fourteen years at the magazine, writing what other people told him to write! He winds up doing grunt work, at MacDonalds, recession style.

His wife catches him masturbating in bed. He can't even enjoy his own fantasies.

The homophobic Marine Colonel next door gets outfoxed by his beguiling son, who sees nothing wrong with living up by dealing drugs. At the end, the Marine turns out to be a "latent" one himself. The only stable characters in the film are the gay male couple next door. Such is Dreamworks partner David Geffen's indirect answer to gays in the military.

The film has a weird, surreal work, emphasizing red flower petals as a kind of wish-fulfillment symbol. It takes place in a nameless suburb (apparently Atlanta) which seems placeless, which may be one of the film's points. Otherwise, there is this David Lynch quality. The wide screen seems curiously unnecessary, and in one scene where the wife (facing her failing real estate business) stands in front of the Venetian blinds, the film fades out around the edges, to provide the closeup. (That's why Alfred Hitchcock never liked CinemaScope).

Still, the lesson of this film is its simplicity of plot, with many titillating episodes. Real life, though, has real places and real people, with self-made reality which is stranger than this film. If you want to deal with life going through the purification inevitable in the next century, you have to deal with complexity.

The narrative approach, in which the Spacey protagonist addresses the audience from "on high" does frame the film well. Particularly interesting is this perspective: "It has been said that every day is the first day of the rest of your life. Except one, the day you die."


THE FIGHT CLUB (1999, 20th Century Fox, dir. David Fimcher)

Personal account narrative is even more effective in a darker film about middle class alienation, that is, The Fight Club. This 20th Century Fox (Fox 2000) offering is directed by David Fincher, and it evokes the nocturnal, other-dominion feel of his Seven (1995). The anti-hero is an lean and agile thirty year old played by acting genius Ed Norton. Why is everyman Norton (Primal Fear) so effective playing a psychopath? Here is a well-off young adult paying his condo mortgage as a recall engineer, and looking for meaning. He orders every piece of mod furniture he finds in mail-order, thinking that this becomes him (forget the computers and compact discs). The condo is a ménage of blues and grays. He starts attending encounter groups, for voyeuristic reasons. (They're way off; testicular cancer surgery does not make men grow teats. In one of the groups, public speaking, to borrow from Dan Quayle, is easy: a woman is asked to sit down from her lectern as she jokes about her sexual frigidity.) He goes over the edge when his psyche invents an imaginary playmate Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Of course, he doesn't realize that when he talks to Tyler, or Tyler talks to him, or hits him, he is talking to himself. He becomes more and more disheveled, to the dismay of his boss; and when his condo burns up during a vacation trip (from a file which he set in his schizophrenia) he moves into a dump that looks like the old house in Psycho. But his craziness attracts a following, to the extent that he sets up am underground of boxing clubs all over the country, eventually becoming a terrorist group a la Tim McVeigh Number 1.

This guy, who might have been a nerd, just, given his failure with the opposite sex and its taming influence, can't find anything to do by herd violence and eventually blowing up buildings (and himself). Some critics call this movie a recipe for terrorists, but I think it is a study of psychological emptiness. It's interesting, though, how he deals with it by standing outside of himself and talking about himself, governing himself, even from beyond the grave.

On Feb. 16 2006 there were reports on ABC “Good Morning America” of middle school kids making “fight club” videos of themselves and posting the videos on the Internet (as an “Internet fight club”). Some of the kids were arrested for disorderly conduct as juveniles.


BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999, Gramercy, dir. Spike Jonze)

If Fight Club dramatizes the process of creating an imaginary playmate or alter "split personality" ego, then the comedy Being John Malkovich (Gramercy, USA Films) poses the ultimate question on the Nietzchean philosophy of self. Well, not exactly. It's a bit like a Voltaire satire, Candide-style. It's pretty silly: a wormhole from an office safe on the 7-1/2 floor (with 4-1/2 foot ceilings), with a Schwarzchild Radius escape on the New Jersey Turnpike, some where near the Goethals Bridge exit. Well, what would it be like to find yourself a more virile man than you are, as you look at your newly hairy legs in the shower. Well, Malkovich is an older actor, and actors change their form all the time, even with complex sex changes (ask Robin Williams about Mrs. Doubtfire). And puppeteer (hardly a Kemlein Puppet Master) played by John Cusack seems more manly than the person he becomes, however temporarily. But it makes a good business for an IPO, to give customers 15-minute rides of being someone they thought they envied. But why Malkovich? Great Bartok music.

THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999, Disney, dir. David Lynch)

And David Lynch joins the search for meaning with the ballade of Alvin Straight (Oliver Farnsworth) in The Straight Story (Walt Disney Pictures and Buena Vista Distribution). This film earns its G rating with its gentleness. This is the story of a grizzled old codger, with no driving license, driving across Iowa and Wisconsin in a John Deere lawn mower pulling a small trailer, to visit his brother striken with a stroke. But can film really deal with life honestly in a G-context? Maybe in satire (A Bug's Life) but not with realism. Lynch likes to take simple, vacuous people and make them interesting by making them weird (the "warm milk" man in Twin Peaks), but this doesn't cover up their empty-headedness. Straight's daughter, played by Sissy Spacek, has had her kids taken because of her supposed mental inertia, yet Straight insists she has a well-spring of wisdom locked up inside. Maybe. Straight (no pun intended) hasn't lived much of an independent life, outside of just being a father to a few children. He spends it in mental circumscription, due to his guilt over having shot a buddy during World War II ("friendly fire") accidentally as an artillery forward observer. There's no important story to tell, and at the end, his brother taunts "you came all this way just to see me?" Last line of the script. His whole trip has been a self-auditing soliloquy. Just before his own death, he discovers the smarts to realize that he could have expected more.

The midwestern photography (reminds one of The Bridges of Madison County) is spectacular, from the flat lands around the Grotto of the Redemption (near West Bend, Iowa) to the unglaciated coulee country of southwestern Wisconsin. There are on-location shots of various towns (Biscobel, Wi) though which I have driven since moving to Minneapolis from Virginia melf in 1997.

THE CONTENDER (2000, Dreamworks, dir. Rod Lurie)

The Contender (2000), starring Anne Harris and Jeff Bridges (as a Democrat president, no less) is another solid Dreamworks political offering. (This is not The Manchurian Candidate (1962), though; no Angela Lansbury.)  And this film manages to make debates on social issues lively and build them into the story.  There is an angry exchange in the confirmation hearings about abortion—in stark terms of a “right to choose” v. the life of the unborn child.  Sen. Hanson is definitely a liberal—enough to take every gun out of every private home in America (but she doesn’t state whether gays can marry or serve in the military).  There is a bit of interesting dialogue on idealism—following one’s “heart” and living by principles rather than partisanship. (Also about the double-standard for men v. women, which many men think is OK.)  But the ending really does vindicate our system.  It’s hard to see that candidates would go to such contortions about the vice-presidency (well, there was the home run the Senator Lloyd Bentsen hit off laugh-a-little-cry-a-little Dan Quayle in 1988).  Add some historical flashbacks, and a lot more subtlety to the “editorial content” issues and it becomes more like a Do Ask, Do Tell movie.  

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000, Paramount Classics, dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

The little Shooting Gallery film You Can Count on Me (distributed by Paramount Classics, 2000) with Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick also spins a knitted morality tale, slightly down-scale from the high-income bored suburbanites of American Beauty.  In this film, Terry (Mark Ruffalo) comes across with the best character, becoming a pseudo-daddy to his nephew while his more stable sister gives in to the temptation of sleeping with the boss (Broderick). You don’t have to be married to be a dad, or be a good role model.  Trouble is, Terry tries so hard to be a man that he can’t stay out of jail.  I love that line where he wants to send the kid to the “Baby House.” 

NEW PORT SOUTH (2001, Touchstone, dir. Kyle Cooper)

Here is biggie Touchstone Pictures (rather than Miramax) releasing what  looks like an independent art film, the writing debut of James Hughes, son of Jon Hughes.  Blake Shields plays the charismatic, restless and ambitious 17-year-old Maddox, who sets apart to make his universe – the high school campus of New Port, Ill. – socially just.  He rails against the hypocrisy, control, and especially intellectual and artistic censorship of  the school authorities, only to take on the controlling and manipulative behavior of authority figures himself as his classmates must eventually rebel against him. Also with Will Estes and Kevin Christy.  The subplot about the legendary high school student who wound up as an M.P. (mental patient, like I was at N.I.H. in 1962) in a nearby asylum seems a bit murky.  But watch the career of Shields—he could be the next Ed Norton.



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