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In this episode: American Beauty | Welcome Back Mr. McDonald
The Muse | Bowfinger
AMERICAN BEAUTY

The first thing I thought when I saw the poster for this movie was, "Oh. The pasta company is getting into the soft porn business." Then I realized how silly that was and thought, "Nah. They're just getting into made-for-cable movies." Then I hit my head and called myself dummy, thinking, "Dummy. They are mutually exclusive."

It's that damn rose. It's in the poster; it's in the pasta logo. The connection between "American Beauty" and "rose" is not surprising to me, the horticulturally educated quadrant of my brain knowing that the American Beauty is a type of rose. (What did surprise me is that it is the official flower of the District of Columbia.) After seeing the movie, I am now completely aware of how the rose connects to the film and thus the poster while, decades later, I am completely unaware of how the rose connects to the pasta. I have read the brief history offered at the American Beauty company website, but nothing is mentioned of the rose-pasta connection. As if no one would be curious, or even care. Humph.

American Beauty (the movie) is fantastic. While stumbling just barely on a few tiny points, the movie overall is a magnificent work. It is funny and dark. The combination of funny and dark in movies these days is as rare as sky sightings in Kansas, but American Beauty has more going for it, like a host of interesting and dysfunctional characters, a tension-building plot, and smart direction. It's kind of like The Ice Storm, but funnier, less poetically shot, and more in-your-face.

The characters in American Beauty are normal in every way: on the surface, they all fit into one suburban archetype or another; underneath, they all suffer from one very human problem or another. While the elements that define each character aren't different or unusual as individual pieces, the loving care with which these pieces are put dysfunctionally together makes these movie people interesting.

Kevin Spacey, as the main character Lester, is fantastically fun to watch. In Lester, you'll see pieces of Kevin's other roles, from The Ref's Lloyd to L.A. Confidential's Jack to Swimming with Sharks' Buddy. Kevin is very good at these kinds of roles thanks to his dichotomous intense/laid-back style. You could say Kevin's acting is itself of the Verbal Soze school. It is both a joy and a tragedy to watch as Lester moves himself out of his dead-end life and into a place where he's happy. I'm gonna talk about something here you may want to read only after you see the movie, so skip to the next paragraph if you want. While we know from the very beginning of the movie that Lester is going to die, the meaning of that fate changes as the movie moves along. Lester begins as a downtrodden, weak man. You may allow yourself to think that his dying will be a pleasant release. As Lester becomes stronger and happier, his impending death becomes an unfortunate tragedy (is there such thing as fortunate tragedy?). Lester is the one character who, by the end of the movie, has his life sussed. The other characters, who are all more "deserving" of death because they are unhappy, confused, or mean, get spared and the truly happy man gets blown away.

That is the world as presented by American Beauty. Life continues thanks to the momentum of those unhappy, confused, mean people. Anyone who has figured out how to disengage themselves from this stable fog gets eliminated. Call it a Suburban Matrix.

Who are these other people in the fog? There's Lester's wife, Carolyn (played by Annette Bening), a working woman who works too much and womans too little. Annette is excellent if sometimes a touch over the top. Interestingly, Carolyn's biggest, saddest scene comes early in the movie, where we see her literally beat herself up when she fails to succeed. The scene is funny because Carolyn is so unintentionally goofy in her go-getterness, but sadly moving because she herself takes go-getterness so seriously. She's too hard on herself, which makes her too hard on Lester and her daughter, Jane (Thora Birch).

Chris Cooper, one of those "Oh, that guy" actors, is excellent as Colonel Fitts. On the surface, Fitts is your average, cliché ex-military grunt, but down deep are bubbling strange and contradictory emotions, feelings, and worries, things that Chris lets show subtly and sparingly, as Fitts himself would, through the cracks in his shiny military gilding. Fitts turns out to be a more surprising character than anyone else.

The kids are very good, too. Thora makes a nice embittered teenage girl. Wes Bentley plays Ricky, Colonel Fitts' son and Jane's "savior." Ricky is creepy and strange, and is arguably the other character besides Lester that has things figured out. I say arguably because I don't think he has figured things out. If you watch Wes' performance, you see Ricky's hiding himself away. As calm and controlled as he looks, even at the end of the movie, he's certainly someone who will snap eventually thanks to his tough home life. You can be stoic only so long before you break. Jane may become a calming source for him, but even together the two young people are just as confused as the adults. Wes and Thora are very good in this uncomfortable but touching juvenile relationship.

Jane's friend Angela (Mena Suvari) is confused but puts a more cheery face on it. She's good-looking and knows it, and tells tales constantly of her conquests with both boys and men. She says she can relax because she knows her life will work and she just has to wait for it to fall into place. Again, it's a façade, and I won't reveal why, but it's pretty obvious near the end what Angela's deal is. More than just a character for Lester to play off of, Angela supports the theme of American Beauty. Everyone's confused or unhappy or both, even if they're beautiful. Swim against this stream and SNIP! Get your pretty little American Beauty head clipped right off. Angela isn't happy, nor is she likely to be anytime soon; therefore, she's safe.

According to the Internet Movie Database, this is director Sam Mendes' first movie. Wow. If that's true, he's done a great job. Like I mentioned, there are some very small things that don't work. For instance, Sam expends a lot of energy constructing a small mystery toward the end of the movie. SKIP AHEAD IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW. To reiterate, we know in the first few minutes of the movie that Lester dies. We find out later that he's actually killed. Well, the mystery Sam tries to concoct has us wondering who will kill Lester. Carolyn? Ricky? The Colonel? It's a little forced, especially since it's pretty obvious who it's going to be. Mostly, I guess I didn't like Annette's forced scene in her Mercedes SUV with the gun and the motivational tape. As much as I believed Carolyn was stressed to the max and was as loopy as overachievers can be, I did not buy that she'd kill her own husband. Never. More plausible was Jane and Ricky conspiring to kill Lester. More plausible, but not likely in the end. ANOTHER SKIP AHEAD WARNING! Fitts was the obvious killer, especially by the end. I mean, here's a guy who's been in the military, slaps his kid around when he disobeys the most minute of rules, has a Hitler plate, tons of guns, and--HELLO!--a deep-rooted homosexual urge. When Lester stops Fitts' advances in the garage, it's no question at all that he needs to kill Lester to "save" himself. While Fitts doesn't seem to have much to lose so why not shoot the guy next door, it's really his own belief in who he is that he's out to protect. He's no cock-sucking bastard. He's no weak-willed father who lets his son break the rules. He's no failure as a husband, despite his wife's mental disconnection. Fitts is a strong military man, and only by killing Lester can he seal the break in his psychological dam. So the little who'lldoit game Sam plays with us at the end is unnecessary and a tiny bit distracting.

Well, it's a small complaint. American Beauty is a work of art in many ways. It's definitely one to watch again to catch subtle symbolism and nuances you don't tend to see the first time around. I hope to see it again to watch the movie as a construction and see how it works.

Go see this one in the theater. The movie is beautifully shot, the compositions important to the tone and theme. Cropped pan-and-scan will ruin the feeling of the movie and most of the role the cinematography plays.

 

 

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WELCOME BACK, MR. MCDONALD (a.k.a. RAJIO NO JIKAN)

[NOTE: This movie is not in black and white. It's just the only picture I've been able to find. Now won't you join me in continuing along?]

This is a Japanese comedy of errors, something that you may never get to see unless you live in a large city or you find it somewhere on video. I read a little of the review in the L.A. Times and decided I had to go see it. I ended up laughing quite a bit and quite voluntarily. I mean, there are those times you laugh in a movie just because you know something is funny or something looks like it should be funny and it is but it just misses the mark ever so slightly so you laugh anyway... Don't you ever do that? Oh, I think you do! It's more common than you may realize. Well, I was laughing in an honest way. My laughter was sincere.

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald is kind of a Japanese Noises Off. The story centers around a live midnight radio broadcast. Miyako (Kyoka Suzuki), an average housewife, has won a radio script competition. As winner (and the only entry), her script gets dramatized and played on the air. That's it! That's the center of the movie. The rest is all just orbiting silliness. As in all good comedies of error (comedies of errors?), to try and describe the silliness will be futile and make the movie sound dumber than a senior during spring finals week.

But you know I'll try anyway.

Okay, let's see. To begin with, the show is being done live because the star, Nokko ( Keiko Toda), hates spending too much time in the recording studio. She is also unsatisfied with her character's glamorless existence, and thus begins demanding script changes. Nokko's co-star, Hiromitsu (Jun Inoue), becomes jealous of the changes Nokko was allowed to have and demands his own. Thanks to these actors' irrational demands, the whole script's structure needs to be altered. The Sensei--Miyako--is at first wary but accepting of the changes because she's the stranger to this wacky world of radio. But eventually she becomes angered at the selfishness of everyone who's making changes to suit their own needs.

Once the show's on the air, other alterations are demanded and new plot inconsistencies are found (once or twice by the hilariously straight-laced news announcer/drama narrator whose name I can't remember), and the radio station's crack writer, Bucky (Moro Morooka) is enlisted to execute lightning-fast rewrites (there is no time to wait for an amateur like Miyako to make them). The producer, a typical stressed-to-the-max man named Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura), has to pander to his boss, useless executive producer Horinouchi (Akira Fuse), while keeping strict but ineffective control of the actors and station personnel.

Eventually, of course, everything descends into a chaos that is a great pleasure to watch. You wonder, at one point, why these people just don't give up and go home. Instead, they carry on, hoping to get through the broadcast because, dammit, that's what they are there to do! The Japanese concepts of loyalty and responsibility play big here. These seem to be alien themes to Americans these days. I mean, I found it somewhat quaint myself. But that was a plus for the movie, not a minus.

The movie has a sort of amateurish charm to it, partially thanks to the amateur job these people seem to be making of the radio show and partially thanks to the movie's own production values, which seem low-ball by American movie standards. Mr. McDonald has tons of heart and some great humor to make up for any technical blahs. In fact, from this very conceit that America is the Great Producer of Entertainment get plucked several of the movie's most amusing moments. The actors, mostly, make changes culled from American culture, the new names they choose being especially hilarious; what they think will add spice to the simple script instead turns it into something Michael Bay would not hesitate to direct. (Will I not leave the poor guy alone? NO!) The title of the movie itself has American origins (the original Japanese title was Rajio no Jikan--no Mr. McDonald in sight). A final amusing touch and slight critique of America comes from the truck driver who falls in love with the show. Played by Ken Watanabe, the man is decked out completely in American clothing: cowboy hat and boots, t-shirt with cigarettes in sleeve, etc. Of course this lover of Americana ends up loving the messy blop the show becomes!

The film is nicely frenetic, again like Noises Off, and though not as technically proficient as that movie, Mr. McDonald pulls off the most complicated scenes and shots just fine. The opening is itself one long take, following people through the radio control room like The Player followed people around the movie lot. It gives Mr. McDonald a good kick in the pants to start.

If you have a chance, see this movie. It'd be best in a theater or on a widescreen video because the framing is very good and will, like usual, be ruined in pan-and-scan. But see it however you find it. It's damn cute!

 

 

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THE MUSE

I began my relationship with The Muse by seeing it in Westwood at The Regent, a small, single-screen theater whose projector was apparently not up to snuff. Part of the image was out of focus. The edges were fine, but there was a trapezoidal region in the middle where the film was blurry just enough to drive me nuts. I of course told the theater staff who of course thought I was just being stupid. After a third trip out to ask what was being done to fix the problem, the guy who was in charge of the projector (and the ticket booth) stood just inside the auditorium door with me, trying to tell me that the movie looked blurry when the camera panned (he didn't know the term "panned") because that's how film looks.

I had two choices. One was to argue with him gently to prove to him he knew as much about film as I knew about what kind of underwear he was wearing, or I could get my money back and leave. As we were right there disturbing other moviegoers with our quiet conversation, I chose to just leave.

Now that there are no such things as projectionists who remain at a theater to make sure every showing is okay, the world just sucks. I see more out-of-focus, out-of-frame movies now than ever. Usually I can get someone to at least try to make the adjustments, but sometimes even that's impossible. I weep.

Ah, The Muse. On my second viewing, at a theater whose projector was properly focused, I got to see that part of the focus problem was the movie itself. I've mentioned this one before, but another common problem with movies these days is camera focus! Lots of out-of-focus shots in The Muse. I can only assume the movie was shot by the guy from The Regent.

Here's the key to telling when even an out-of-focus movie is out of focus in the theater: film grain. If a theater projector is even slightly out of focus, the film grain in the picture goes away. If a movie is blurry and the projector is in focus, the image will look blurry but the piece of film itself, represented by the film grain, will be sharp. Film grain will soon be a thing of the past thanks to electronic projection, so enjoy this tip before it becomes moot! Go check you local theater's focus TODAY!

Okay. The Muse. Funny in parts, boring in others, Andie MacDowell is a mediocre actress, Albert Brooks is both amusing and annoying, Sharon Stone is very sprightly and energetic and kinda fun, the plot is a clever conception but a dingy execution, and I wish it'd been funnier.

I enjoyed the funny moments like Jeff Bridges' tennis game, Albert's meeting with the slimy Paramount executive, the walk-on pass, the visit to Steven Spielberg's office, and the clever cameos by people like James Cameron and "Marty" Scorsese. I didn't like Albert's awkward and out-of-place disapproval of his wife's success, the very un-funny script the Muse ends up inspiring Albert to write, or the dumb "I'm spending lots of money of this wacky lady!!!!!!" situation.

If I have to make only one deep, "look I'm wearing all black!"-inspired film snob comment, it'd be this: I think the script Albert was writing in the movie should have mirrored The Muse's script. Wouldn't that be interesting? I didn't pull this out of my black-attired ass completely. It seemed a couple times that Albert was actually paralleling his own movie with comments on adding characters in the third act and throwing in some previously unhinted-at event to make everything okay. Maybe I was looking too hard. I mean, this was a light summer comedy, after all.

Well, screw light summer comedy if it's gonna be like this. I'm not regretting seeing it, I'm just not enamored, and the film will slip out of my mind just like everything I learned in college! POOF!

 

 

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BOWFINGER

Did I say I was done with light summer comedies? I did, didn't I? Well, hey, I saw this one before I saw The Muse, so there. While I'd say Bowfinger had less out-loud laughs than The Muse, I'd say I enjoyed it more. It was smarter and better made, more clever and less cliché. Unfortunately, it doesn't gel like a good light summer comedy should. Or any movie, for that matter. Gelling is key. So is Jell-O. Mmmm. Time for a snack...

Steve Martin wrote this movie, and I like Steve very much. L.A Story is one of my favorite comedies. So I had some high hopes for Bowfinger. Ah, but gelling! There was none of that. The movie was missing some magical thing that made it work. The humor was just not all there.

I would like to commend Eddie Murphy for his awesome performance(s). He was fine as Kit Ramsey, a parody of himself and other mega-big action stars. He was brilliant as Jiff Ramsey, Kit's nerdy brother. Jiff as a character is not so original, but what Eddie did with it was golden. He had mannerisms down to a science so instead of watching Eddie Murphy as a nerd, you were watching a nerd. A very funny nerd. The smirk, the stooped neck, the squinty eyes, the open mouth... Man, so funny. Thanks for being so good, Eddie!

The premise of Bowfinger is a great one, but the novelty of this great premise wears off after a while and the movie becomes kind of dull. In the end, it even gets to be too insipid.

The other actors all do a fine job, and the snarky take on Scientology is amusing. I could mention a dozen other very clever moments from Bowfinger, but I can't say they were all funny. That whole thing about laughing when something looks funny but just isn't quite? I was doing that in Bowfinger. Then I got tired of doing it and stopped.

Sorry, Steve. Though we share a name, I can not say I loved this movie. It was fun and nice, but not hilarious.

 

--Steve

9/24/99

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©1999 Steven Lekowicz except:
American Beauty photo © DreamWorks
Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald photo © Toho Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.
The Muse photo © USA Films
Bowfinger photo © Universal Pictures