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American Beauty (1999)
A mixed-bag of much brilliance but also much condescension
"American Beauty" has been praised exorbitantly by both film critics and audiences across the nation. The time has come for a real assessment of this picture. The truth is, that perhaps the hype surrounding it has clouded how good it actually is. Do I think it's a bad picture? By no means. Do I feel it's a strong work, flawed by good intentions? Yes. Let's start off with the character of Carolyn, the burnt-out suburban wife who grows tired of the same-old life. She is played with gusto by Annette Bening. I think the role is written as a bit too much of a caricature to be as affecting as it's meant to be. Bening is memorable in a difficult role, but I do wish Mr. Ball would have taken greater care in making her seem like a woman, rather than a shrill schoolgirl. I almost think a slight bit of misogyny runs underneath this portrayal. However, this role is retrieved with the role of Janey, played by Thora Birch. She makes a sharp contrast to her mother, and perhaps is the way it's meant to be. I hope so. Then much of my hesitancy about the film will be quelled. Kevin Spacey is astonishing in a role both funny and feeling. He captures the innocence and the devastation life causes. He's a man who has become a puppet, and he wants revenge. Spacey is dynamic and quite amazing. The rest of the actors, with the exception to the underwritten Mr. Fitts, are all terrifically appealing. Another strong aspect of the film is its writing (excluding some minor problems in the structure of the conclusion). Alan Ball's screenplay is ribald and haunting, true and beautiful. Seeing it come to life on the screen is a tragic, moving experience, as is the film. Sam Mendes' first-time direction is never less than hynotic. The way he uses the camera and the widescreen is admirable. Every shot seems to be perfectly set, and somehow the camera is in tune to this cold, harsh environment. The direction is first-rate, and among the best of 1999. The first hour of this picture is among the finest I've seen. It's a stunningly biting comedy about suburbia and the hell it brings. Everything is told sharply, with the edge of a scalpel. Satire is wonderful if handled right, and boy is it. The only problem with the film is its climax, which feels a bit preconceived. There's a plot element, involving something using an Austin Powers-like gag that leads to misunderstanding, which sets the final machinations in order. Nevertheless, the ending works because we know it from the beginning. The plot comes full circle. Seeing the last 10 minutes of the movie were akin to an avalanche of emotion, most of them sad and eerie. "American Beauty", much more so than "Happiness", is a sad work, one in which there's no perfection to be had. The point is told well, and in memorable fashion. AB is a memorable picture in many ways. Anyone not in tears as the inevitable death is played out is doubtful to ever cry. The movie also doesn't force its emotions. It earns them through character observations. All in all, AB is a fine motion picture experience, even if I was a bit bothered by the mechanism that it took to get there. Grade: B+/A-. A fine, sad, penetrating picture. AB is flawed, but at its best, it's moviemaking of the first order
A breathtaking, surrealistic, heartrending cacophony of emotion and audacity!
Writer-director-producer Paul Thomas Anderson, of Boogie Nights fame, has fashioned an astonishingly good movie here. Indeed, it's something to be treasured for a long time to come. It is hard to articulate how much this film has affected me since seeing it. More so than any other in 99, this defined going to the movies for me, and it's also my personal pic for the best film of that year.
Anderson begins this story with a brilliant prologue, narrated by Ricky Jay, telling of some famous urban legends. Three in fact. These anecdotes appear to have nothing to do with the rest of thing, and they don't really. It's only upon reaching the end of the film that we fully understand the purpose of this narration. It sets up the film's themes obliquely yet specifically, and it does, contrary to some peoples' opinion, set the stage perfectly for a climactic event that occurs late in the picture.
There are nine main characters in this film. Some of them are: Earl and Linda Partridge (Jason Robards and Julianne Moore), Earl's estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise); a kindly police officer; a gameshow host, and his coke-addicted daughter. These random characters have seemingly little connection, but as the intro suggests, they are united in their emotions and in a few other surprising way. The acting in this film is nearly beyond compare. Tom Cruise fashions a dynamic, enigmatic, not always likeable portrayal of a misogynist who gives seminars on how to "seduce and destroy" women. His sexual passion and unbridled attractiveness is on full display here. Thankfully, since his erotic charms are usually kept below the surface. Here, he's allowed to truly shine for the first time in his career. It's forceful, gutsy, and entirely believable. Jason Robards lends a quiet dignity to Earl, as we see a dying man looking back upon the regrets of his life. Julianne Moore is terrific in a demanding role that makes her seem as if she's either manic or angry, when in fact she is simply struggling with complex emotions. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the man's nurse, lends a beautifully tuned humanity to the proceedings, and is one of the sources of hope present throughout the film. This has been likened to Robert Altman's cynical "Short Cuts", but I feel "Magnolia" outclasses it in both its more logical tone and in its emotional veracity. Melora Walters is an absolute amazement as Claudia, the drug-addled daughter of the quiz show host. She's strung-out, lonely, looking for love....
To give much about the plot or character development of the film would be ruinous. Thus, I will expound upon the structural and directorial achievements of this visionary film. PTA's dazzling work with the camera is apparent too, as he weaves complex camera shots in and out of these tortured lives. His film is giddy, almost drunk of the pure notion of making movies. Because of this, there is an unfettered, gloriously inventive energy to "Magnolia", which keeps it fresh and entertaining. The direction here is at turns forceful and gentle. That Anderson can balance both the complex storyline and emotional truthfulness over the length of a 190-minute film is a pure accomplishment. He creates something sad, poetic, beautiful, courageously moving, and ultimately, important with this film. It's more than a simple trip or slice-of-life. For one day, we see inside the lives of a group of San Fernando Valley residents in all their maniacal dysfunction. IN doing this, he also tells us much about the world as a whole, in ways both quiet and loud. He's gifted with an ear for dialogue, and it certainly helps him here, where everyday conversation forms the backdrop to big life issues, such as parental abuse, incest, drug addiction, hope, and the fragility of life.
Now, many people have been talking about the unexpected ending of this film, which I will not reveal for surprise purposes. These people call the ending superfluous or out-of-the-blue, which is completely nonsensical. To answer these, I will state that there are more than 3 references in the film to the climactic event, sprinkled in hidden signs and such. In addition, the ending is set up purely in its TONE from the first frame of the film, in which the coincidental? urban legends are discussed. By ending his film in a unifying thread of uncontrollable storm, Anderson provides a parallel and example to his points. The film is trying to tell us how the life we see around us is so fragile that it's sometimes useless to plan for the future, when all it does is come down in a way that proves there's something greater turning the gears. Yet, through it all, the hope survives. We first see the glimmer as the cast breaks into song at Aimee Mann's luminous "Wise Up", which unites the characters in misery, pain, and grief. Aimee Mann's songs were the backbone to this film, and it shows. They fit the tone and idealism of the film perfectly. The ending of the movie, after the cataclysmic event, proves that the event is no mere indulgence or folly. Anderson has a real point to make here. He says that although we can't know the future or its nuances, we always have to pick ourselves up and keep going. It's perhaps a message that's been heard before, but never in such a raucous, sad, inventive, joyous celebration of imagery. "Magnolia" is at turns heartwarming, unbearably sad, and hilariously human. It's as if it knows all our souls fully. It picks up the subtle connection between ALL people, and it's why the film works so well at pulling its disparate characters together.
The final scene of the film, over which plays Mann's stunningly haunting "Save Me", is a scene so full of grace, harmony, and hope, that I burst out crying right in the theater. It's a scene of magic, and it proves everything else in the film. In fact, I think it's one of the finest ending shots in motion picture history. Rarely has the message of a work been so clear and so beautiful in a single moment. This movie's fearless boldness and its true sincerity are welcome additions in this age of irony. Here is a director going for broke, and as was not the case with "American Beauty", everything really DOES come up roses, in a blooming metaphor of life and emotion, of sadness and triumph. The best film of 1999!
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
A ravishing, emotionally complex, and heart-rending film of great elegance
Seeing this gorgeous tango between Damon and Law, I was never less than captivated and riveted. Minghella has fashioned something literate, powerful, seductive, charming, tragic, and beautiful. His casting is nearly perfect. Damon is unforgettable as an amoral but fascinating character whom we even sympathize with by film's end. Law is stunning as Dickie, the man whose life Ripley adores. Paltrow is good, though she is not given a whole lot to do. Blanchett is perfect in a small but pivotal role that only adds to her already impressive filmography. This is a near-masterpiece. Minghella's talent for visual opulence is second to none, and his work here should earn him a directing Oscar nod. The same goes for many others associated with this brilliant achievement. The ending is as unsuspected as it is inevitable, that is, sad and unsettling. In fact, the whole film underscores these emotions. Whereas Highsmith's original novel was cold and sometimes inert, the film makes Ripley much more of a living, breathing character, and as such, a great symbol of tragedy. It may be some time before I forget this intense experience. Certainly one that deserves multiple viewings. One of the best films of 1999. I think this may be one of the best pictures I have ever seen. Bravo everyone. A moving, rich knockout!