Tag Archives: American Beauty

Meet Joe Black (1998)

I don’t exactly have strong feelings one way or the other about Meet Joe Black. Some despise it for being overly long and uneventful, some enjoy it as a meditation on death and love and living a fulfilling life. I’m neutral. Consistently so, in fact: pretty much every single facet of Black lands in a sort of middle ground. The premise? Interesting enough. The writing? Passable. The great Anthony Hopkins? Yes, he’s certainly Anthony Hopkins. The direction is fine, too, from the reliably careful Martin Brest, though this is him turning in his final film before the reliably careless Gigli; shame that every time you think hey, that’s a nice shot the little homunculus in your head whispers don’t forget Gigli. Anyway, I’m aggressively neutral on Meet Joe Black.

Do you want to talk about something else? Have you seen the commercial with the little baby and the car and the thing? Did you know that Rogaine is fatal to cats? Oh, you really came for Meet Joe Black? On purpose? And you haven’t even seen it? Abridged version: everything is starting to die (Anthony Hopkins) or starting to live (Claire Forlani) or Brad Pitt’s hair (Brad Pitt’s hair).

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Ordinary People (1980)

Halfway through Ordinary People, there is a scene in which high schooler Conrad Jarrett’s parents are taking family portraits. His mother and father take turns posing with their only son while his grandparents run the camera. Conrad awkwardly folds his arms, not knowing whether to smile. Father flashes a genuine grin, truly relishing the moment. When it’s Mother’s turn, the two stand together uncomfortably. Father’s trying to take the perfect picture, but Mother doesn’t know how to show Conrad affection, and her fake smile is growing tired. Father takes too long with the camera, Mother gets increasingly frustrated, Grandparents are talking over everyone as usual, and suddenly Conrad explodes. He’s had enough. Not so much with the photo, but with his mother’s inability to stand next to him and smile. Everyone freezes, except Mother. She carries on like nothing happened, hoping to fade back into normality like another ordinary person.

It’s a perfect representation of the family’s dynamic, though not the only one. Ordinary People is made up of small moments like these where characters aren’t saying how they feel, partly to keep up appearances, and partly because they don’t actually understand how they feel. In his directorial debut, Robert Redford proves to be an actor’s director, finding the ticks and gestures that characterize these humans better than any line of dialogue would. This is a movie about a family’s lack of understanding, of each other, yes, but mostly of themselves. They fidget, they pace, they stare blankly, lost in thought. They don’t understand why they feel and act the way they do, so they look to blame each other. After all, Conrad once screams, “It’s gotta be somebody’s fault or there ain’t no goddamn point.”

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American Beauty (1999)

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: Sam Mendes’ directorial debut, American Beauty, is one of the most psychologically engrossing and, admittedly, strange films of all-time. Let’s get another thing out of the way too: Sam Mendes’ directorial debut, American Beauty, is one of history’s greatest films, and is one of the best directorial debuts in recent memory.

Sure, it doesn’t take a movie genius to call American Beauty a great movie. In 1999, the critically acclaimed film collected five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography. On the surface, though, the film’s success seems far-fetched. The plot consists of a creepy middle-aged man fantasizing about his teenage daughter’s best friend, while he struggles with his rather extreme mid-life crisis. That doesn’t exactly sound like the winning formula for a movie. But the beauty of the film lies in its tagline—“look closer”—as both the audience and the characters are encouraged to do as the film progresses.

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