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Oscar Gold: American Beauty

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

What did we do to deserve a year in film as excellent as 1999? By this point, most cinephiles and critics are at consensus that the final year of the 1990s is one of the finest when it comes to consistent cinematic output. Just ask a group of movie buffs what their ‘99 favorite is and you’ll likely end up with a variety of laudable choices. With available titles like Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix and Being John Malkovich, among a list of plenty of worthy contenders that could fill the rest of this column, there really are no wrong answers. However, one answer has been seemingly grown more “wrong” in the 20 years since it took home Best Picture: Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.

By the time the 72nd Academy Awards arrived in March of 2000, the film was a critical and commercial hit, grossing over $350 million worldwide against a $15 million budget and scoring rave reviews in the process. It was a heavy favorite to take home the majority of the 8 awards for which it was nominated and indeed that came to pass, as it won in 5 categories including the top prize. When you look at the rest of the Best Picture field that year (The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense), it’s not difficult to see how a film like American Beauty would stand apart. In a group of films helmed by seasoned directors, with Shyamalan as a notable exception, it was the rabble-rousing new kid on the block that Academy voters were eager to champion.

So what’s become of American Beauty’s legacy since then? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the cultural conversation turned against its favor, aside from its initial detractors. As early as 2005, Premiere Magazine cited it as one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time,” even though that list also included truly unimpeachable offerings like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantasia. Since then, social media has allowed for a total relitigation of the film, years removed from the rapturous response from revered film critics like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. It also goes without saying that after September 11th, the Great Recession and the country’s continuing political polarization, American Beauty’s concerns may read as trivial in retrospect.

But aside from the cataclysmic cultural shifts that have transpired, perhaps the most damning contribution to American Beauty’s decline has been the 2017 sexual misconduct allegations against Best Actor winner Kevin Spacey. With 15 accusers in counting, 3 of whom were victims of suicide last year alone, the assertions are troubling to say the very least. This along with a pair of confounding YouTube videos, in which Spacey gives cryptic advice as his House of Cards character Frank Underwood, has all but guaranteed that Spacey will never work in Hollywood again. Ridley Scott even scrubbed Spacey entirely from his 2017 film All The Money In The World, replacing him with Christopher Plummer merely a month before the release date.

These revelations about Spacey’s conduct make the film more difficult to revisit, especially given that much of the plot centers around Spacey’s Lester lusting after an underage girl. Recently rewatching the film for the first time in many years, I did my best to set the current context aside and watch as if it were 1999. In doing so, I was quite surprised with how much of American Beauty does hold up 20 years after its release. In his first screenplay for a feature film, Alan Ball shrewdly etches each of the main characters with a sardonic humor that still gives each of them their own unique voice and perspective. Its takes on middle-age malaise and suburban strife may not seem especially novel today but few films were investigating these themes as boldly as this one at the time of its release.

In his feature debut, Sam Mendes (who won Best Director back in 2000 and will likely do so again for 1917 on Sunday) showcases an impressive command of the form in the film’s opening moments. He lays out the plight of his put-upon protagonist along with his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane with cutting cynicism and economical editing. I was struck with just how much Mendes juggles thematically in this film, between the exploration of sexuality, materialism, homophobia, loss of identity and mortality. These are obviously touchy subjects for American cinema and Mendes pulls off the balance even better than I remembered.

Even if Mendes’ tale of middle class ennui doesn’t resonate with viewers, there’s enough technical prowess behind the camera to keep one engaged throughout. Thomas Newman’s still iconic musical score utilizes sensitive tuned percussion and lilting piano to counteract the dispassionate and glib tone of the film. In one of his last films before his passing in 2003, cinematographer Conrad Hall does career-best work with beautiful shot compositions and a sedate color palette that allows the color red to pop. He also throws in clever visual metaphors, as when Lester’s computer monitor at work captures his reflection against lines of code that resemble bars of a jail cell.

From Fight Club to Office Space, corporate imprisonment and subsequent liberation was a popular theme among 1999 films and it’s not difficult to see why. We were at the brink of a new millennium, with a host of new fears and anxieties at our doorstep. Y2K put us on high alert and in some ways, it feels like we never came down from it. The only escape, the film posits, is finding purpose and beauty in this world, even if its in observing an innocuous plastic bag dancing in the wind. Perhaps American Beauty is more pretentious in investigating this philosophy than some would like but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a closer look.

2019 Preview

2018 was an especially good year for film and fortunately, 2019 also looks to have plenty of good selections in store. Here are 20 titles to look out for this year:

  • Opening on January 18th is Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s superhero sequel to Unbreakable and Split that once again pits Bruce Willis’ David Dunn against Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass while adding James McAvoy’s The Beast into the action as well.
  • Opening on February 8th is The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, which looks to build on the surprise success of its predecessor by bringing back Chris Pratt to not only voice Emmet but also Rex Dangervest, a parody of action heroes portrayed by Pratt in other films.
  • Opening on February 22nd is How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third and final installment in the series which finds a budding romance among Toothless and another dragon as our hero Hiccup looks to defend his tranquil village from an emerging enemy.
  • Opening on March 8th is Captain Marvel, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that goes back to the mid-1990s to introduce us to Brie Larson as the title character, who discovers her origins as a member of the Kree alien race and joins them in battle against the Skrulls.
  • Opening on March 15th is Us, a psychological horror film from Get Out writer/director Jordan Peele that centers around a family of four looking for rest and relaxation at their beach house but finding nothing of the sort as they’re stalked by a group of ominous strangers.
  • Opening on April 5th is Shazam!, a new superhero comedy in DC’s Extended Universe centered around a troubled teenager who stumbles upon a magical realm that grants him the power to transform into a Superman-like hero, just by saying the magic word.
  • Opening on April 26th is Avengers: Endgame, a direct sequel to last year’s Infinity War that will seemingly resolve the gambit presented during the previous film’s conclusion. Paul Rudd and Brie Larson will likely be added to the already massive cast.
  • Opening on May 17th is John Wick 3: Parabellum, another high-stakes actioner with Keanu Reeves reprising his role as the unstoppable lead character who is now on the run from a league of skilled assassins lurking all throughout the streets of New York City.
  • Opening on May 24th is Ad Astra, a science fiction thriller from director James Gray starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut in search for his missing father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who disappeared twenty years earlier on a dangerous mission to Neptune.
  • Opening on May 31st is Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the latest in Legendary’s MonsterVerse starring Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown that pits the everyone’s favorite gigantic lizard against other classic creatures like Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah.
  • Opening on June 14th is Men in Black: International, a reboot of the sci-fi comedy series that re-teams Thor: Ragnarok stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as they bust out the big guns and travel the globe in order to solve an intergalactic murder mystery.
  • Opening on June 21st is Toy Story 4, another sequel from Pixar that brings back Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang as they’re introduced to the new toy named Forky on a road trip. Comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele join the talented voice cast.
  • Opening on July 5th is Spider-Man: Far from Home, another adventure for the Marvel superhero that finds Peter Parker on a summer vacation with his friends in Europe as he joins forces with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio to do battle with creatures known as Elementals.
  • Opening on July 19th is The Lion King, a photorealistic remake of the 1994 Disney film that once again follows the journey of the lion cub Simba as he becomes King of the Pride Lands. The stellar voice cast includes work from Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
  • Opening on July 26th is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the latest from Quentin Tarantino that stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as a TV actor and his stunt double as they look to make it big in the movie business in late-1960s Los Angeles.
  • Opening on August 2nd is The New Mutants, a horror film based in the X-Men universe that finds five young mutants who are being held against their will in a secret facility. Originally slated for an April 2018 release timeframe, the delayed project looks to shake up the traditional superhero genre.
  • Opening on September 6th is It: Chapter Two, the follow-up to the box office smash that picks up 27 years after the events of the first film as the demonic clown Pennywise continues to haunt the members of The Losers’ Club well into their adult lives.
  • Opening on October 4th is Joker, a twist on the infamous Batman villain with Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. Set in the early 1980s, the movie centers around a failing stand-up comedian driven to psychosis and a life of crime by the uncaring citizens of Gotham City.
  • Opening on November 27th is Knives Out, a mystery crime film from Brick and Looper writer/director Ryan Johnson described as “a modern take on the whodunit murder mystery”. A fantastic ensemble cast, including Chris Evans and Lakeith Stanfield, is led by Daniel Craig.
  • Opening on December 20th is Star Wars: Episode IX, the conclusion to the Star Wars sequel trilogy that brings back The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams following the mixed fan reaction to The Last Jedi. Disney looks to put the franchise back on track after the financial failure of last year’s Solo.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

2018 Christmas Weekend Preview

It’s the most wonderful time of the year and if you’re not in the holiday spirit yet, Hollywood has you covered. Here are 5 major releases coming to theaters this upcoming holiday weekend:

Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a direct sequel to the classic 1964 musical which finds the merry and mystical nanny reuniting with two of the children from the original, now grown with children of their own. Filling the shoes of a screen icon like Julie Andrews is no easy feat but it looks like Blunt may be a perfect fit to recapture the charm and whimsy that Andrews brought to the role all those years ago. The trailers so far have teased images that harken back to the hand-drawn animation from Disney’s heyday and with original music from Tony-winning composer Marc Shaiman, this film could be quite a delight. Expect it to clean up at the box office when it opens early on December 19th.

Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, is the latest installment in the DC Extended Universe which follows the titular superhero as he leads the people of Atlantis against the evil sea creature Orm. With last year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League representing the best and worst of what can be found in this Universe, Aquaman seems like it could wind up in between the two. I can’t say I’m a big fan of this version of Aquaman based on his two previous appearances but the digital effects in this entry at least seem markedly less murky than other recent DC films. This movie has already done almost $100 million in business since its opening in China and with early screenings already trickling out around the US, all signs point to this being another massively successful superhero stint for Warner Brothers.

Bumblebee, starring Hailee Steinfeld and John Cena, is a spin-off of the Transformers franchise (technically a prequel to the first film in the series) that focuses on the origin of the titular yellow robot. Set in the late 1980s, there’s a good chance this film will lean into pop cultural touchstones from the era to add a bit of personality to the sci-fi action thrills. It’s a bit odd to have a big budget blockbuster like this open in the heart of awards season, especially since the past four Transformers films have opened in June, but I doubt this will affect its financial success overall. With two likeable leads at its center and Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight replacing Michael Bay in the director’s chair, there’s a good chance this could be a critical success in addition to being a hit at the box office.

Holmes and Watson, starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, is yet another Sherlock Holmes adaptation brought to us by the same goofball team responsible for Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. The surplus of recent Holmes variations have generally played things straight, focusing on the detective’s almost supernatural deduction skills, but it’s clear that the strategy here is to play everything for laughs. I was initially excited for this film when I first caught wind of it but all the promotional material I have seen so far has made me markedly less eager to see what looks to be pretty flimsy fare. I’m sure there are plenty of laughs that could be wrung from the legendary literary figure but with gags involving killer bees and selfies present in the trailer, Sony obviously went with the broad approach with this comedy.

Welcome to Marwen, starring Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, tells the true story of a man desperately trying to reconnect his life after a violent assault leaves him with almost no memory of his previous life. In order to cope with his loss, he constructs a miniature village called Marwen in his backyard populated with dolls that represent his friends and family. Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis looks to blend pathos with technical wizardry together as he did with previous work like The Polar Express and The Walk. Carell has proven that he has the dramatic chops for this kind of material and those looking for an inspiring film around the holidays will likely find what they’re looking for here.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

2018 Thanksgiving Weekend Preview

Thanksgiving is upon us and while that often means extra helpings at the dinner table, it also means extra options at the movie theater. Here are 5 big releases that will be out in time for Turkey Day:

Creed II, starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, is the sequel to 2015’s Creed, which re-booted the Rocky franchise along with being a critical and commercial success. This time around, Creed is training to fight the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian heavyweight who killed Creed’s father in the ring during the events of Rocky IV. Stallone reprises his iconic role once again and is also credited as a co-screenwriter along with Juel Taylor. Steven Caple Jr. steps up to the director’s chair, replacing Ryan Coogler in the wake of his tremendous success with Black Panther. With its name recognition and a built-in audience, look for this one to replicate the financial (and possibly critical) success of its predecessor.

The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman and Vera Farmiga, follows the rise and fall of Gary Hart, a senator-turned-presidential hopeful whose political career crumbled after his extramarital affair was uncovered by the press. The true story of the 1988 scandal comes right around election time, although the film could instead be a victim of post-election fatigue. While the reviews have been favorable enough, particularly for Jackman’s performance as Hart, the box office numbers from its limited release have been far from promising ($56,000 in its opening weekend). The movie is directed by Jason Reitman, who has had his share of hits (Juno, Up in the Air) and flops (Labor Day, Men, Women & Children). Hopefully there’s enough left in the marketing budget to give this a push before its wider release.

Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, tells the story of Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur Tony Lip as they tour the Deep South in the 1960s. While the two seem to have nothing in common during the start of their relationship, they begin to bond through shared experiences that erode the racial obstructions of the era. As one half of the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary), Peter Farrelly has typically excelled out gross-out comedies but he’s directing here for the first time on his own and the subject material is quite different than what he’s handled before. Positioned right in the heart of Oscar season, I could see this getting quite a few nominations and I could also see this being a runaway box office success along the lines of last year’s Hidden Figures.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2, starring John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, looks to mirror the breakout success of its charming predecessor Wreck-It Ralph back in 2012. This installment follows the titular video game character along with his friend Vanellope as they break out of their arcade machine and find their way onto the World Wide Web. Based on the early advertising for this movie, it seems to rely much more heavily on pop culture references than the first film, integrating characters from loads of Disney properties from Star Wars to The Muppets. This could generate plenty of crossover appeal and translate to even bigger box office numbers than the original film but it could detract from the quality of the narrative if it goes too far with its cross-branding.

Robin Hood, starring Taron Egerton of the Kingsman films, is yet another re-telling of the classic tale of the hero in green who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The supporting cast includes Jamie Foxx as Robin’s mentor Little John and Ben Mendelsohn as the treacherous Sheriff of Nottingham. With its over-the-top fight choreography, the trailer for the film makes it out to be a cross between last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed. Both of those movies performed quite poorly at the box office, at least in the United States, and I could see Robin Hood sharing a similar fate. There have been countless other renditions of this story, including one as recent as Ridley Scott’s from 2010, and there doesn’t seem to be enough in this 2018 entry to distinguish itself from the pack.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup