Very Bad Things
Peter Berg, 1998
At an hour and half long, I think I just watched 50 minutes of grown men yelling at each other that places my mind into a set of a 5th grade class I'm trying to be in charge of. I hate being a teacher.
So, the story of Very Bad Things is as simple as its title implies: good people do bad things. Namely, murder and maim each other. A bachelor party ends up with an accidentally dead hooker. But hey! It's Vegas! Just bury her in the desert. It takes five minutes of excellent character actors Jon Favreau, Jeremy Piven, Leland Orser and Daniel Stern screaming at each other in exactly the way upstanding middle aged men would in the aftermath of manslaughter to set the actual tone of the movie. I say five minutes, and you hear “a short period” but in the movie world, five minutes is an eternity.
We'd been led astray, with goofy soccer mom Lois (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her camcorder making us think this was a comedy.
I signed up for a comedy. The poster told me so. The cast implied it so! And don't get me wrong, I'm one of those annoying jerks in theatres who laughs at everything from punch lines to zombies getting a croquet mallet in the head to Austen lasses getting rejected at a dance. My favorite comedies include Heathers and American Beauty.
I also get wet for movies that portray human behavior accurately – see two favorites above. So Peter Berg (wrote and directed) totally nailing how confused these suburbanites are after unexpected and reprecussion-full death is beautiful. The actors are spot on. Each grabs the personality of their character and whines, cries, yells, throws punches exactly as they should. And even though Jon Favreau's character is the protagonist, Christian Slater's character is the one directing action among the friends. That is, he picks up on how not to get caught by police and wrangles his four friends along.
All the following clean up murders and side stepping, also brilliant. It's just not funny. It's just not good watching.
The weird part is that, this easily could have been a comedy. The situations are ludicrous, the soundtrack is ironic and upbeat, Christian Slater and Cameron Diaz's characters are perfect cartoons for serial killing! The rest of the cast and the writing is just, well, too good.
Not to insult Slater or Diaz's jobs here – they are absolutely my favorite part of the whole thing. In fact, Diaz actually steals the damn show. Her 10-12 minutes of total screen time as a bridezilla who is not going to let serial murder get between her and her perfect wedding, are priceless and the best I've ever seen her. She snaps between lovey-dovey and furious in half a second. Not just with her face, with her whole body! She acts with everything she has! You can almost smell her overpriced perfume she's so good.
Since she is the lady who epitomizes the blasé tretment of murder, it is also Diaz who holds the moralistic “covering up your murders is bad” In the end the camera stays on her romping facial expressions as she cleans the house, now orphaned children, gazes at her maimed husband and his maimed best friend and goes a little Jim Carey running into the middle of the street to fall over. Goofy beyond reckoning? Absolutely. She gives me my humor! Berg's last gift is the use of a wide scope lense in a super close up of her now-deranged face, blowing her cartoonish face right up to redeemably funny proportions and then pans out to the stratosphere, leaving our adorable idiot squirming in the middle of the road.
Over all, a little too good a rendition of normal people doing bad things.
The Last Unicorn
Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr. (1982)
Because it stars a unicorn and its animated, people seriously underestimate this movie. I'm assuming you've never seen it, and if you have it was as a child. I also assume you think me silly or adorable or stuck in my Disney Princess phase for naming this as one of my favorites, if not very favorite.
First: It's not Disney by any stretch of the imagination or looseness of that term. Different studio, different animation, different sentiment, different spread of actors, made almost entirely in japan, and by actual Japanese people not weird Disney cronies overseeing anime – IE Spirited Away.
Second: Themes dealt with are way more advanced than most people watching will pick up on. These themes include: Loss of Innocence. Confronting/Losing one's Identity. Nature versus Nurture. Descent into Madness. Conquering of Fear. Coping with Annihilation.
Name me adult movies that do all these? The Shining? One of them. Independence Day/Armageddon? One. Silence of the Lambs... ok, three.
That's right. Fuck people and their anti-unicorn prejudices.
The only concession I make on the abject unicorn-ness is the fact that the film, like The Bible, only becomes truly interesting when you interpret it allegorically. However, since people do this naturally with Alice in Wonderland it shouldn't be too hard. Besides, Peter S. Beagle, the author, also wrote the screenplay and probably saw this as his chance to re-edit his own story, cutting down on the sprawl that the adventure tends toward in written form.Θ This makes the movie so tightly plotted, with each character's appearance so distinct in the unicorn's development, one cannot help but lean on allegory.
Now, with that out of the way. We open with a wood. The animation here is antiquated by even the standards at the time – 1979. There are physical layers being filmed in Snow White era (1930s) stop motion to show depth. Its gorgeous and tactile. The trees appear two dimensional and three dimensional at the same time and it's magic. Next up, we have some relatively human men ride through this wood with a prologue of sorts: We live in a rational world and all the unicorns are dead, isn't that a pity? Except, these woods are weird? Thank creation (not god) there is one unicorn left in the world.
The audience now knows that the world is almost without unicorns. Allegorically, science has killed fancy and there are people who regret this. Further, with the established meaning of unicorns in symbolism being innocence, the world is almost completely ruined beyond innocence. Immediately we meet with the most innocent of creatures, the one that is fictional. We have a short soliloquy where she comes to first terms with the annihilation of her species, and the mystery involved in it.
Her first interaction with another creature is half a conversation with a butterfly. The butterfly's personality resembles many a nutcase throughout literature. All he does is spout off snippets of poetry and music. After listening to something like gibberish which only loosely follows the unicorn's own external monologue, she embarks on a Gilgamesh/Joseph Campbell quest.
As such, she encounters many more a helper and hindrance. Each one progresses her self awareness until she is no longer like the other unicorns she strives so hard, for so long to save. The great tragedy of this is that at its climax, she renders her own goal moot. Her brethren return but she is no longer, truly one of them. Thus, she remains the loneliest survivor of annihilation in the history of fiction.
For me, where it becomes most interesting is when she is transformed into a human. This brings up the conflict of whether we are what we look like or are we how we think. As Amalthea, the Unicorn completes her loss of sanity and innocence. Only with her helpers does the quest even stay online; she has become as wayward and easily swayed as the butterfly who inadvertently tipped the scale and convinced her off to find her peeps(and just as inadvertently herself). This vulnerability to the plot does nothing but exemplify the tenuous hold people have on themselves when thrust into circumstance. Its nothing short of brilliant.
If I were to explain fully, everything that is brilliant about this film, however, I'd write a full treatise on it, or at least a collection of essays. Have I already started this, you ask? Why yes! They should be finalized and ready to go out to magazines and literary journals the world over by the end of next year.
Mr. Ebert says you should watch this movie just because it exists. Mr. Wilde says that art exists only for this reason. As an addict of aesthetics, especially when they agree with my own sensibilities, this movie is far and away the most beautiful thing created in the last ten years. Actually, I'll get back to you on whether its the most beautiful thing from the last century. What comes close? Hmmm... a couple Picassos, Maybe some Miles Davis. Henry Fonda's face? Well, if you combined these things and added the cutest child ever to act and strung them into a complexly plotted and tightly executed conglomeration of sight and sound, you'd get Tarsem's movie here.
Plot: girl breaks arm picking oranges in orange county. Hospitalized. Man paralyzes himself jumping from a moving train to horseback as he is a stuntman in early Hollywood. Hospitalized. When bones are broken and people are confined, unlikely friendships form and stories are told. The movie follows two plots: the story that he tells her and the story of their interactions with various doctors, nurses, priests, other patients... As the two plots intertwine, we learn more about each of their lives. As with all friendships, the more we learn of each character, the more complex plot. That is, he decides to commit suicide and enlists her in smuggling him morphine pills.
I mean, you just don't get more original or interesting or complex than that!
But! Its awesome does not end there!
Filmed in over 20 countries with a minimal of computer imaging, The Fall questions the power of imagination in a time period where people decided that moving pictures were both the new life and ultimate death of imagination. While it makes no effort to assert philosophy, The Fall exudes simple, childlike morality which is actually refreshing in our super gray world of ambiguity. What is bad? What is wrong? Manipulating children into aiding suicide: its bad, its wrong, it may be the ultimate bad wrong you can exert with your power as an adult. What is selfish and useless? Suicide. Period.
Tarsem sees little point lollygagging about thought-heavy things once these black and white morals are dealt with. Because of its moral simplicity the story becomes doubly potent and heart breakingâ€”you as viewer are sucked into the child's earnest perspective, pretty much regardless of how cynical you may think you are.
To make this all the more realistic, our lead actress, Cantica Untaru, is a young Romanian lass who actually barely acts. She was told â€œthis is a movie set, this is your co-star, this is the story.â€ Beyond that, most is ad-libbed. Her costar, Lee Pace, who I hope to see in many more things, knew what he had to say and where the story had to go, but beyond that... They even went so far as to not let him out of character the whole time so they were constantly interacting, as his character is paralyzed from the waist down, this includes him being in a wheel chair for the whole of filming. It comes through most poignantly. Love it.
Lemme see... Special effects are minimalist. It's one of the main appeals of the film as a whole. That fade from butterfly to island? Done the old fashioned way-with splicing of gelatin, not with photo-shop. I don't even want to try and comprehend how long it took them to set up the one desert shot that segues between the marriage and the death sentence scenes. Colors are all more vivid and enhanced, but not annoyingly so. Wash out filters are only used subtly, most glaringly in the last scene where Orange County and Alexandra's experience of it are nostalgia-ized with a sepia hue, but again, its acceptably subtle. Black and white is used only because it has to be in the plot. Slow motion is used perfectly â€“ not too much. Supporting cast, supports. Everything that seems out of place or odd is only as such because it fits the mind of an 8 year old in a foreign country imagining a story being told to her by an almost stranger.
When you're finished watching this the first time, you are nothing but stunned. Done the second, you start thinking about it, realize there's nothing to think about beyond the mastery of the film-making itself. Every detail your over analytical mind tries to pick apart and apply some obscure philosopher to just points back to the plot. Third watching, you start wondering how the hell long the story boarding must have taken.
Mark Palansky (2006)
A trendy romantic comedy made for/by nerds who watched too many Tim Burton movies as kids.
This fairy tale is based on Hans the Hedgehog. Usual love story, blah blah blah, but there is a curse on either the girl or the boy because of an ancestor’s misdeeds making them unwillingly anthropomorphic, in this case a pig snout and ears on poor Penelope’s (Christina Ricci) otherwise adorable face. Yet our young heiress, Penelope, is looking for acceptance as a pig faced girl via marriage. Enter the suitors. Shoulder devil character Edward (Simon Woods) and shoulder angel character Max (James McAvoy), As it turns out, are both out just for the fortune, as you’d expect, but neither know beforehand of her facial deformity. Normal plot line follows… Girl tries to find herself, chooses wrong boy for wrong reasons etc.
Although this makes the film ultimately predictable you should not be disappointed because, well, you’re watching a romantic comedy. Thus, you should not listen to other reviews you may have ingested on this movie. It’s your own damn fault for watching a PG kid movie that easily doubles as perfect first date material.
Even in this ground though, there are a few too many exaggerations. The idea of men literally throwing themselves out the window to escape Ricci’s prosthetic is silly. She’s way too cute, even deformed, to try to escape. Also, defenestration is illogical when there is a perfectly well shot stair way directly in front of you, especially when our writer and director went to such lengths to make this appear a feasible thing to happen in a modern New York/London setting.
I say trendy because of the sets, props, costumes, chosen actors reflect the tastes of a savvy graphic designer trying to tap the imagination of a 14 year old girl in the early 21st century. Bright colors, slight goth tint, east side New York setting allows for many a spunky supporting role, including our producer Reese Witherspoon, and two hot for now, but otherwise vaguely androgynous and British male counterparts ala Orlando Bloom.
All these roles are perfectly executed. Otherwise cut and dry characters pop with actual acting. Everyone knows Ricci and Witherspoon of course, they are solid both in art house and popular flicks. McAvoy is on the rise to similar stardom what with The Last King of Scotland and Atonement under his belt, likewise Peter Dinklage has been in numerous critically acclaimed films like The Station Agent plus a cameo opposite Will Ferrell in Elf. Who we don’t know so well is Simon Woods, but he too plays either serious Octavian in HBO’s Rome or wickedly doofy suitor to Keira Knightly in Pride and Prejudice. If the subtly of this cast’s humor and earnesty is lost, this too is your own damn fault for giving up on what is a lovely movie, if a bit stretched in places.
Mostly it is sweet girly candy with a subtle flower motif that easily could have gone the way of Tinkerbell and friends, but didn’t. Soundtrack, likewise.
Fritz Lang (1931)
Fritz Lang’s actually lesser known masterpiece is bedrock for film and society and societal observation/interaction in a post world wars world.
After Metropolis’ flop at the box office (though massively loved in later years thanks to Superman cartoons and Herr Goebbels) Lang turned to much more naturalistic fare and turned from the overly stylized world of German Expressionism.
Though some overt lighting, exaggerated camera angles and a fresh-from-silent-acting Peter Lorre may stage-ify M, its illustration of paranoia in civilization is still cutting edge. M follows the capture of a pedophiliac serial killer; sure it’s a cliché to today’s CSI and Nancy Grace-drenched audience, but in 1931 it was still pretty chilling.
What sets M apart from other psychological thrillers (either then or now) is the focus on fear due to physical violence rather than the violence itself. That is, the only evidence that a small girl is abducted is a symbolic balloon tangling in some electrical wires.
Instead, Lang follows an interlaced plot of Berlin’s police force and Berlin’s criminal force. Due to this especially hateful crime, both sides of the law are out for Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). This is where the only dating of the film occurs: Fingerprinting seems to be a new fangled invention.
This leads us to the idea, and conclusion of the film, that primitive passion is way more effective than coolly cornering a criminal. The mob boss has the bright idea to hire the homeless to track for suspicious characters. Lang interlaces this with coppers rounding up the usual suspects and filling their cells with obviously innocent run-of-the-mill criminals in a giddy blaze of self righteousness.
Yep, we never see that little girl again, and the police pretty quickly forget about the mother; the mob boss never cared that there was a mother in the first place. What they don’t lose sight of is Peter Lorre and his creepy cum cute chub.
A beggar chances on the killer and chases him down. Only here does the title become apparent. The beggar draws a giant “M” in chalk and nonchalantly slaps Beckert’s shoulder so all the mob scouts can join in the chase.
What ensues is a chase scene shot from above to emphasize a rat maze claustrophobia. The only comic relief in the film comes at this point where the petty criminals act as we would expect a swat team to do. Eventually they ferret him out of a dark and sodden wood hole in the attic and take him down to their world—a cement walled basement! There, they continue their sham of justice (lest we forget that earlier in the film they were being strong armed by the law because they were the only people worth suspecting) with a fair trial. Despite a riveting plea for mercy on Beckert’s part (a performance worthy of Charlize Theron’s MONSTER or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal) the “jury” quickly devolves to a mob again, complete with pitchforks.
Beckert, coming so close to being sympathetic in the face of this mob, is saved only by the law who breaks in at the last second. Their only ability, the whole movie, is to track normal criminals, and track them they do, just in time to claim credit for the arrest.
Statements made by Lang: Pedophiles and murderers suck, but mass paranoia is scarier. Also, Johnny Law is next to useless unless you are committing a crime committed by these five guys over here first.
Michael Curtiz (1942)
Casablanca is many things, but mostly it was a perfect storm of production values at the time it was made. In 1941 the world was just getting to the worst of its second self involved war and Hollywood was at the height of production studio centered glory, open and ripe for the attention of the power-jealous paranoids of the 50s. The people making Casablanca had everything needed to make the most popular movie in history (sorry Titanic, lets see you attract people over and over at festivals –what? You can't? Oh, that's right, you blew your load.).
They had exotic settings, a ready made situation to forever tug at people's heartstrings, timeless leading actors (there is no era in fashion history that Bogart and Bergman would look bad in) ridiculously awesome supporting cast of character actors—the breadth of which I doubt will ever be seen again (a rant for another day!).
Best movie ever made, no, not critically or technically. Critics tend to allow Casablanca into the annals of Best Films Ever because it is so enduringly and solidly good. Nothing big. Nothing fancy. No great arguments about hubris, mortality, social issues – what have you – like Citizen Kane or All About Eve. Just Nazis and unfulfilled sex. I ask you, what is wrong with this?
The direction does nothing but build tension and alert viewers to whose a baddy and whose a goodie. What you don't see, in fact, is the direction. Casablanca is seamlessly plot-tastic.
And what a plot. Few works of fiction sell unrequited love so convincingly or realistically. Not only do they acknowledge that a person can love two different people equally and still retain honor and nobility and all that, but we actually buy the motivations behind all three people in the triangle. AND! It is resolved in a perfectly tragic pit of hope for the future without relying on the “babies = hope” crutch.
More intricately, political intrigue and double crossing are never going to get old. The only thing that would ever truly date this movie is the political intrigue. Because Nazis are actual, historical bad guys, and tied to a very specific place and time, it's possible that cultures outside of SUA, and/or a couple generations down the line will not care so quickly or easily for “the troubles of three little people” on the run from the Third Reich. Luckily! There is a slick little intro with a model globe and voice-over which introduces the time and place very nicely. If you were an alien and knew nothing of earth history, but were profoundly human—sentimentally—you'd get it.
Where the direction picks up after all this awesome, is in the details. Every time I watch Casablanca I find a new detail that reinforces a character or setting. Usually they're shadows. The shadow of Rick opening his safe, the dancing girl shadow in The Blue Parrot, the shadow of scurrying French underground braves... They add depth to otherwise static blocking and cardboard sets.
The continual usage of shadow is probably my favorite, non-plot related thing. When combined with the fact that everyone smokes constantly in this movie, the world of northern Africa is orientalized in the sexiest of all possible ways—subtly.
Two things I've noticed that can actually be considered mistakes: Hand-wound mending. One of the shadows shows Rick opening a safe...he does not close it in the same scene... hm...
First viewing, I fell asleep. Bored. Hated it. I don't know when I watched it the first time and liked it. I honestly don't remember, but by my first year of college I couldn't stop watching it. Bought a poster in an antique store, hung it in my dorm room as a declaration of my superior taste to all the Animal House posters. Consequently I become immediate friends with the girl across the hall who's choice was Cool Hand Luke. We were so damn cool. They were destroyed by asbestos and we had to buy a new ones, not vintage. Sad.
Bob Fosse (1972)
The manic pixie dream girl’s manifesto/what Bob Fosse thought about Nazis.
We follow the befuddled Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) as parallel to the rise of Hitler. Sex and booze are pretty well enjoyed in Berlin, 1931 and Nazis are, thus far, a joke of organization spouting “tripe” to be ignored.
Fosse seems at first to be only focused on the melodrama of an annoying foursome. A first date is in front of anti-communist posters. Second dance number interlaced with a Jew being beat up. First fight between secondary couple and two Nazi youth members drops a dead dog on their doorstep. Each personal drama is surmounted by a gain in society by the Nazi party.
Sally herself is nothing short of a 20 year old version of the crazy old bat Miss Minnelli we have all come to know and in sitcoms the last decade over. But here she is “an underage femme fatale,” complete with a shapeless body and Josephine Baker haircut. Her lover Brian Roberts (Michael York, you know him as the old mentor of Austin Powers) is stuffy and British, born only to succumb to this crazy dame. Secondary characters include the bi-curious Maximillian, worrisome rapist Fritz and naïve darling Natalia. Yes folks, if ever you’ve wondered “will rape win me the girl?” you now have your answer: “of course! Especially if it’s a vulnerable German Jew.”
There’s some bad over dubbing in a little boat scene which I can only imagine makes Fosse roll in his grave with aggravation to this day. Luckily, for my devout love of Fosse, everything else is characteristically perfect: shot composition, editing, color pallet are all polished. Themes are tightly controlled in the sets, writing and music. It really is unfortunate that three of the four main characters are so heinously annoying.
Easily the best thing about the film, though, is the cabaret host. He is our narrator, and bookends. He lets us know what’s going on behind Minnelli’s uber annoying presence. His androgynous and mime-ish expression is delightful as he sings the narration of the film in a super fake German accent. He lets in Fosse’s signature surreal conduit to his true message: the Nazis were bad for hurting Jews, sure, but REALLY they were bad for shutting down the clubs and doing away with drag queens and everything that is fun.
PS. Liza Minnelli won Best Actress for this shit. Just because she’s Judy Garland’s awkward daughter doesn’t mean she should go around getting credit for exemplifying infuriation.
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Stephen Herek (1989)
Discarded as stoner fluff and left for dead by the non-cult-flick-fanatics, Bill and Ted are not ever to be underestimated. I can't really critique it. I suppose that is why critics don't like it. They can't pick it apart and piss on it with their Derides and Schopenhauer. I've said it before and I'll say it again—whatever.
This film is perfectly put together. Direction: Like Casablanca, it does nothing but point at nothing but the characters and what they're doing. Invisible. This is a talent I think has gone unappreciated a damn long time. I say “Bravo” nameless director, whoever the hell did this totally awesome flick.
Acting: exactly what its after. Where this movie comes out ahead of things like Waynes World is that those really are clueless teenagers, and I'd be willing to bet that that is what they wore to their audition. Wayne and Garth, on the other hand, kinda contrived and overly caricatured.
Plot: a fantastic spin on Candid-like picaresque. Oh! And its got one of those moral thingys. Aren't people always praising those? “Be Excellent to Each Other.” If the world were run by Bill and Ted, like the plot supposes may well happen, it would be a pretty radical place – both literally and how they, themselves, use it. Speaking of which, if you're seriously going to argue that its too 80s kitsch, you need to reconcile with your own poor choices and grow a sense of humor.
Why, I ask you, can people not love things for being perfect incarnations of what they are aiming for?
I love this movie for so many reasons, many of which you have listed above. It's a history nerd's wet dream in terms of absurd treatment of massive historical figures. That combined with the fact that they take nothing serious in the movie(Socrates is dancing to rock music, for fuck's sake!) makes it so much better than like you said, Wayne's World or something like that. Perhaps Dude, Where's My Car matches it for foolishness, but only because it goes for what Bill and Ted did 15 years prior. I never realized what you meant by the camera work until I thought about it, and agree. I think it would be nice if more movies were done as such. Good camera work is good when it plays well. Most of the time, however, it's mostly people imitating Guy Ritchie or someone similar, who actually know what they are doing when moving a camera around in a scene. Some call it poor directing, I call it letting the actors do their fucking job. And for the two dudes in this movie, its being as stoned as possible.
I believe its one of the first stoner movies that didn't try too hard, and was given to rest after a 2nd, less good iteration. Unlike Cheech and Chong, these two knew when to stop and let this film grow into the amazing hit it is. I first saw it in High School and still list it as a favorite when people ask about stoner comedies. Pure fun.
Sam Mendes (1999)
There is no end of existent praise for this film, and I tremble to add to it. Color palette, characters, dialogue, acting, direction, story—all first rate. This is the first movie I ever watched and thought “wow, that's a perfect movie.” Not only can I find no actual fault in it, but there is no bad or unfinished taste left in my mouth from it. Maybe a bit calculated in feel, but even that fits with the film's being from the protagonist's post-death point of view.
What's neat is that, originally, this death was meant to be the focus of a court room drama. Again, set post death, from his perspective, but with a court room frame. The stoner kid and his camera on trial for the murder. I'm glad they went without it. Without, there is a lovely ambiguity and no chance for easy answers or for the entire affair being reduced to a game of clue and/or episode CSI.
Edited aÅŸa, we are presented with our narrator and a vivid cast of secondary characters who add to each other and interact seamlessly. Many movies have tried pulling this off and few succeed. Most end in a series of vignettes that somehow tie together, like Love Actually or Babel. Time gets chopped up evenly on the storyboard, so the characters balance out—time wise. So, the audience is supposed to sympathize with all of them... equally...
Nice sentiment, whatever.
Many movies, like Across the Universe, try pulling off the one story from different perspectives, or a small community interacting, but only American Beauty realistically gives all its secondary characters enough weight and depth that they could support their own full length stories easily.
But that would be moot if the courtroom had been allowed to prevail.
As it is, we just have a narration of the last year of Lester's, Everyman's, life circa 1997. If we'd opened with a courtroom, the drama would focus on the verdict, but this way the drama is subsumed so that when scenes where violence happens that violence is all the more harsh. A plate of asparagus hitting a wall is hardly tense if compared with the possibility of some kid's brain frying for our entertainment/justice. Everyman's life would be mundane except for his death, but this way the fascination in an ascent to self discovery.
Similarly, the growth of the supporting characters is allowed to flourish without a courtroom. American Beauty, though ending with the death of our protagonist, churns up the possibilities of life and stirs the viewer's own desire for sublime within the ordinary. Besides, the children of the doomed have plans for their life! If the courtroom had been allowed to prevail, we would no doubt see these plans thwarted and therefore end on less uplifting note.
Of the three children in question, the daughter's growth, is probably the most important for the viewer. As the actual spawn of the dead protagonist it is her human responsibility to carry on his work. Thankfully, Ball made another crucial choice: he did not hit us over the head with this symbol. No, she, like every teenager, hates her parents. Furthermore, her actions hinge on so many different people's opinions of her that, while the courtroom scenario would allow her more screen-time (being the girlfriend of the “murderer”) the whole fiasco would stunt all the blushing promise of growth she shows when with him. In the scene with the famous plastic bag, she doesn't necessarily see the beauty he does in the bag, but the beauty in him for his simple and sublime love of the world. What Lester achieves just before death, she achieves – albeit vicariously – appreciation of the sublime in the mundane before leaving home to fulfill it.
The daughter's catalyst, Ricky, is a rather dashing allegory for turn of the century go-getters. Highly motivated both to appear perfect to parents and to make it in the world as yourself – freak or whatever – by whatever means necessary. It probably goes without saying that I have a giant crush on this character. As a person, he doesn't grow. This is probably why he is, bizarrely, the center about which this glorious film tilts. By staying still and letting other people meet him, he forces the whole machine a-lurchin'. Finally he makes a move for himself and delivers the crux of drama for both the courtroom version (being the one left holding the bagï¿¼) and the ambiguous version (taking the daughter off to freak central New York).
If Ricky were accused of murder, Carolyn's, the wife's, role would become wormish and all over despicable, rather than just confused and mildly hysterical. She is an obvious suspect, and her character, at the time of murder, is motivated to do nothing but cover the truth of every one of her actions. From the very beginning, except two quick shots, she is nothing but fake to everyone she interacts with. Getting Nailed by the King, and a small gasp just before Lester gets beer on her $4,000 sofa upholstered in Italian silk. These are minute and quickly covered up. Otherwise her pure self is expressed through guttural screams in private, and are quickly reprimanded and suppressed. Thus, if she were to be confronted as a witness she would only squirm and rely on her facade self. Without the courtroom, she is released from the forced growth of her little motivational tapes, thus sent in a different direction.
Lolita'sΩ role would be swallowed and reduced to tertiary rather than secondary if the courtroom reigned. As it is she acts as the perfect foil for daughter's role and the driving force of the protagonist's. However, because of shots of her washing her face, and crying on the stairs, we see her unstaged actions and therefore glimpse her motivation. With the addition of the courtroom, she'd be simply a witness, and an unreliable one at that. As an unreliable witness her character would lose any dignity regained by the soda/sandwich discussion, and be doomed to ridiculousness.
Most insignificant out of the lot would be Ricky's parents. Though they have small amounts of screen time, they are Lester and Carolyn's dysfunctional alter-egos. They would only be included in the trial as Ricky's parents. I doubt the fathers role as actual killer would be brought to light. This is infinitely depressing from every angle. The movie would suck. Totchka.
Last, but not least, the super cute gay couple that are Lester and Carolyn's hyper-functional alter-egos. They'd be even less of characters than they already are. They'd be passing thoughts, and trivialized baubles. As it is, they are clearly the hyper-functional end to suburban life. And that is nothing but awesome to me.
There you have it, American Beauty, not Crime Scene Investigation: Suburban Melodrama.
I don't think I've yet posted my American Beauty review, but I can proudly admit that American Beauty as a close second favorite movie of mine, makes me cry almost every time I watch it. At the plastic bag. Yep. It's a new definition of – something. Je ne c'est crois. But everyone cries at triumphant/tragic love stories. Everyone cries when they see The Notebook. I don't wanna admit that! But it's true. It got me. The damn melodrama got me. It is really, really good.
Maybe it's because I watched Married Life so many times I fell in love with Rachel McAdams (young Allie). Maybe it's all the amazing costumes from anywhere between 1920 to 1965 that never cease to make me drool. Maybe I was in a moment of weakness and in the overwrought string orchestra got under my eyes.
It's not though. What sets this movie apart, and ultimately puts it at the top of its class, is the all encompassing melodrama of the plot. Seriously, what I said about Bill and Ted being the pinnacle of stoner comedy? This is the be all end all of romantic melodrama. James Cameron, eat your heart out, Titanic only comes kinda close. I'm yet to read the novel Nicholas Sparks wrote that this movie is based on, so I don't know if the book is this tight, but the plot has all the stops pulled. He does not stop with their meeting.(See Serendipity) Or their marriage (Sense and Sensibility), or even their first kid (The Young Victoria). It stops at the end. Sparks does not shy from his heroes, Noah and Allie, having rough patches and fights and other relationships. He doesn't preserve one in pristine good looks (see Titanic and Love in the Time of Cholera). Sparks and Carravetes declare that shit happens and that a love preached about in romantic comedies can not only prevail, but champions over things and even knows the perfect time to quit. I live in contempt of movies that preach “great love” and then never show it to me. As much as I will watch Pride and Prejudice over and over, I feel cheated. No such loss of pain and loss of gain here.
So, plot. Each set piece eats the heels of the one before in sparky timing (sorry, I had to. I dedicate this review to my friend Faith, and she would appreciate a good pun). If ever there seems peace between the characters we can always flash forward in time to see the couple old and her gone with dementia. The heart strings get a-tugged lickety split. What's even better is we aren't told this right away, in fact we don't know factually she is Allie until she “meets” her children, and don't hear Noah's name until the third or fourth false ending, but if you haven't got that figured out within 15 minutes you have never interacted with Story. Normally I'd call the director out on this sort of easy tension, but here, there are so many tiny scenes building the characters that even I, the eternal cynic, thought Allie might choose The Guy Who Plays Cyclops. The Guy Who Plays Cyclops is a totally likable guy. She even loves him. Narrator tells us so.
(I could go off on a tangent here about meta narratives – turns out our narrator is Allie herself writing the title notebook so Noah can read it to her over and over until she remembers, and Noah is the one telling the story and so we don't know if she really did or if she is just writing that to make everyone feel better about her difficulty in choice between the two handsome men, but! This is a plot movie, it does not call for analysis. And I'm afraid analyzing it would ruin this warm feeling it gave me...)
I could yell about the intrusive music, or the sap upon sap, but I can't. It's not just the writing. The acting is great. I mean, they aren't finding new ways to express pain or joy, not really, but McAdams and Ryan Gosling (Young Noah) manage the gamut of emotions demanded by a life (short of the tragic loss of a child or something. Noah comes close with his best friend getting shot in the war, but it's not that sort of drama). Now, Gena Rowlands and James Garner, they find new ways to express those emotions. And damn are they good.
Also good about these characters is their roundness. Noah is not John Cusack or Tom Hanks or any Strong Romantic Lead. He's a lumberjack who reads Walt Whitman – more like Will Hunting, but without succumbing to cliché. Allie is a little closer to ruin. She's a manic pixie dream girl to be sure, but somehow stays fresh as a real person. She grows up, chooses things grown ups choose. She's not a stunted Natalie Portman in Garden State or Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown.
Sparks gives each a dream, a fear, and each a parent or two for developmental purposes. Most surprising is the lack of Noah's mom. Normally a writer would jump on that, exploit it, it's not even mentioned. I am now going to read this book and if it's in the book I'm going to be disappointed, but here, its spare and touching in a way that mentioning would have just gummed into soap opera. This, and many other details are all that harnesses The Notebook from being just another tearjerker with new actors. It is a fully functional romance unafraid of where the love it preaches may wander – in sickness and in health. Finally.