22 August 2010

38. American Beauty

This movie does what all good movies must do -- every scene focuses on making us wonder what will happen next. And it mostly accomplishes this by setting things up and paying them off.

It starts from the beginning when we see grainy home video footage (unique for the time) of an almost nude girl talking about how she wants her dad dead. We see the opening credits, then we helicopter in to a typical suburb. The VO introduces us to our hero, Lester Burnham, who informs us that, within a year, he will indeed be dead. Within the first two minutes or so, we're already wondering: did that girl, his daughter, kill him? Did she have him killed by the other voice in her video? Or did something else happen?

Because of this, we're engaged in the story, we're actively participating, we're curious and we will follow.

The first ten minutes or so set up everything -- the first time we see Lester's wife, she's pruning rose bushes. This sets up the movies main color -- red -- and sets up the rose motif, which will play into Lester's journey later in his fantasies about Angela. We see the neighbors, a gay couple, and we see the new neighbors, Ricky and his military father, all of which will be important later. Finally, we see Lester, asleep in the backseat of a car being driven by his wife. This sets up two things: another visual motif -- jails or cages (seatbelt, reflections on Lester's face) -- as well as Lester being metaphorically asleep or dead inside, and his wife being the one controlling the relationship.

In these ways, the first ten minutes of the movie set up so many things that later get paid off. And they get paid off in spectacular fashion throughout. For example:
Lester meets his daughter's friend, and the rose motif continues. The color red remains throughout, with their front door, Lester's sports car, his toy car, and blood on the wall.

The subplot is Wes Bentley's character, Ricky. He comes in right when he should, at 24 minutes in. Another set-up and pay-off -- his dad runs a tight ship, and he talks about how he hates their gay neighbors. Ricky's response speaks volumes. The two main things this sets up: Cooper's latent homosexuality that gets paid off big time in the third act, and Wes Bentley's character, who is the key to the movie in that everyone else is trapped and playing a role, wherein Ricky (when not with his father) is the only person who seems comfortable with who he is, and is the most free. How remarkable that the key to the movie is with an unrepentant weed dealer!

And how remarkable that the midpoint of the movie, the traditional reversal, happens due to masturbation -- masturbation fantasies by a grown man about an underage girl at that! Lester has become sexually unleashed due to his attraction Angela and is acting accordingly. His wife calls him out and he becomes defiant. This is the beginning of him breaking out of his cages and becoming free. In short order, he quits his job, buys a new car, starts working out, breaks a plate at dinner, generally becomes the man he wants to be.

The third act of the movie -- all compressed to one rainy day -- is a mini-masterpiece in keeping the audience wondering what will happen next, mostly through paying off set-ups and creating red herrings that allow us to imagine ANY of the characters killing Lester. The truth is a big payoff and when it is revealed, it incredibly is done only visually and only in a few seconds. At that point, the murder mystery is besides the point, and the only thing we care about is that a character we liked finally broke free, even if for a little bit. That's transcendent.

So even though this film hasn't aged particularly well in terms of its message about the suburbs being a place where men lead lives of quiet desperation (countless TV shows have mined this theme since) and many of the styles of filming and costume have become dated, it is still spectacularly constructed and satisfying from a narrative standpoint, in addition to the great work from the actors, DP, composer, and director.

10 August 2010

32. Fargo

opening shots -- a car coming through snow -- that's the movie in a nutshell

opening scene -- lots of exposition in dialogue. dude is in a tight spot, hires two others to kidnap his wife. one is talkative, nervous. the other doesn't talk, is quietly menacing. the main dude is a pushover.

he comes home. the fact that we know about his wife makes the domestic scene that much more surreal, tense. as well as the clearly strained relationship he has with his father in law

his father in law decides to do a deal with him, so he tries to stop the kidnapping. he can't -- they are coming ever closer

min 15 -- we understand a little more what his plight is -- he borrowed $300k against vehicles that dont exist. another example where he's being 2-faced. the tension between his cherry minnesota nice accent and diction and demeanor and what he's gotten himself into is what's compelling

min 18 -- the banality of her everyday suburban life with the kidnapping. ends on a question -- is she dead?

jerry's deal with the parking lot -- the panacea -- is dead for him because he's an idiot. and to make it worse, his hated father in law will cash in on it

comes home to find the remnants of the kidnapping, realizes the gravity of it, rehearses talking to his father in law

meanwhile, the bad guys are pulled over and have to kill a cop, then passersby, so they don't get caught. they are in deep now, point of no return for everyone. it's fully revealed how bad the quiet one is

subplot -- the cop investigating the murder. it's novel because she's a pregnant woman, and she's the opposite of hardboiled even though she's clever and resourceful, also nice - dlr license plate gag
-- her husband is a compelling minor character because he has his own arc with the stamps

terms of the deal - wade will pay, realizes his kid is involved and has to confront his kid and lie

symbolism -- dead tv static symbolises meaninglessness, a wrong turn. cut to marge and her husband watching tv and it's about bugs taking care of their young -- something she and her husband will be doing soon. they are DOING SOMETHING with themselves, not out committing crimes and being a burden to society

midpoint -- they want the entire 80k because they had to kill people. immediately after he gets a call from the gmac guy wanting the money as well -- the noose is tightening.

wade decides he's going to make the drop, not jerry. he bowls jerry over all the time, and this will be the last time

she comes to investigate shep and talks to jerry. he lies.

she meets with her old classmate, and he lies to her a ton. two purposes to this scene: to show the breakdown of social niceties in this area, and to have him lie to her and have her realize that people do lie -- that gets her wanting to investigate jerry

end of act 2 -- shep beats up steve b., so he decides to end it. wade drops off the money and they shoot each other. steve b. gets away -- he's a murderer now -- he's turned a corner

act 3 -- marge & her people investigate more. bartender tells them about steve b. and his hookers

steve b. buries the money. he's a murderer now and even greedier than before, which is his downfall.

marge discovers yamamoto lied to her. payoff to the confusing setup. it's an epiphany. she goes to visit jerry, who is filling out the form for the cars. she presses on him and he flees.

steve b. returns, splits the money, insists on the car. quiet guy doesn't like that, says they split the car. he kills steve b. he has already killed the wife

marge finds the car. tense scene because we know what quiet guy is capable of, and because we like her. he's feeding steve b. into a wood chipper -- shown only visually. he runs, she shoots him in the leg. important -- she's not a killer like them

she tells the theme after capturing him -- "there's more to life than a little money, you know. don't you know that?"

they catch jerry. he's been reduced to an animal.

epilogue with her and their little life. "we're doing pretty good."

here's what makes this movie good:
* it brings us into a world that's specific and familiar, but also somewhat foreign (the world has its own diction and social mores)
* it's grim and brutal but levened by comedy
* the novelty of cops and robbers in the rural midwest; the novelty of the cop being a pregnant woman who is anything but hardboiled
* it's a thorough and specific examination of a timeless theme: it's about where greed leads -- usually to death.