Netflix review: Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty” (1999)

Sam Mendes would go on to direct another critique of suburbia after his American Beauty (1999), Revolutionary Road (2008). Together, the two are companion pieces – one sees the death of its leading man, the other, its leading lady.

Revolutionary Road, the later release in Mendes’s filmography (and starring his then-wife, Kate Winslet), marks a maturation of his “suburban prison” theme.

Meaning American Beauty is the more immature film.

If you don’t know what to watch next, American Beauty is available to stream on Netflix. The drama was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture as well as Best Director.

Best Original Screenplay winner Alan Ball was inspired by the “Long Island Lolita” media scandal.

As a framing device straight out of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Lester Burnham (Best Actor Kevin Spacey) narrates the movie from beyond the grave after his murder at the hands of an unknown assailant.

He is a middle-aged magazine executive who is unhappily married to a real estate broker, Carolyn (Best Actress nominee Annette Bening), and father to an angsty teenager named Jane (Thora Birch).

Around the same time Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) moves in next door with his repressed wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), and voyeuristic filmmaker son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), Lester becomes infatuated with Jane’s cheerleader friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari).

American Beauty is frequently cited as among the worst Best Picture winners of all time, and its age has sullied it to a degree. Spacey’s own perverted past, which came to light during the #MeToo movement, makes his characterization of the pedophilic Lester a little too “realistic.”

That the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science celebrated him with an Oscar is further proof of the predator culture in Hollywood.

But, even if somebody else played Lester, the picture would still be flawed. It is a toxic masculine power fantasy for pedophiles.

Carolyn is an offensive caricature of career women, Ricky is a vehicle of wish fulfillment for Hollywood artists who objectify, fetishize, or otherwise obsess over their “muses,” and Frank proliferates the homophobic myth that male homophobes are closeted gay men.

Still, like the rose for which it is named, American Beauty is one of the most dramatically, aesthetically, and overall cinematically “beautiful” films ever made, thorns and all.

Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning cinematography externalizes Lester’s perversion for the audience as poetically as such imagery can be photographed.

Coupled with Thomas Newman’s Heavenly nominated score and Mendes’s stage-like direction, it is some of the most striking non-CGI camerawork ever put to celluloid.

And Spacey’s line delivery is at times lyrical. His final voiceover never fails to raise chills. His performance is unethically good in that it is sympathetic, but, to the critical media consumer, it is still well worth the watch.

But it is Ball’s script that Spacey reads with such musicality, and what a script it is. It can be in equal measure comedic and stirring. Its satirical tone rings sharply inside us as a dark, sinfully watchable mood, as though pricked with… well… an American beauty.

For better or worse, American Beauty is a feat of American filmmaking out of a Hollywood dominated by abusive, older men. Its production value is impeccable, if not its ethos. At least Lester gets what he deserves at the end.

Amazon Prime review: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972)

Following the success of his Pulp Fiction (1994), Miramax wrote Quentin Tarantino a blank check.

Using that carte blanche, he shot Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), which this critic would argue are his masterpiece, even though Pulp Fiction is the more successful movie.

Paramount did the same for Francis Ford Coppola after The Godfather (1972), and that artistic freedom, so fleeting in show business, gave us The Conversation (1974), the most significant sound picture since Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927).

And, as with Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, The Conversation is the auteur’s masterwork, even though The Godfather is the more influential.

If you don’t know what to watch next, The Godfather is available on Amazon Prime. The crime film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning three, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The filmmaker himself cowrote the script with Mario Puzo, who originally penned the 1969 novel of the same name upon which the movie is based.

Set in 1945 New York, Don Vito Corleone (Best Actor Marlon Brando), head of a crime family, is gunned down in the street when he refuses to invest in as well as provide political protection for drug lord Virgin “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri).

His firstborn boy, Sonny (James Caan), takes over the family business, while middle son Fredo (John Cazale) seeks shelter from Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) in Las Vegas and youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) flees to Sicily as a gang war erupts between the Five Families.

With Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), married off to the abusive Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), the Corleone power vacuum faces further destabilization.

The Godfather is popularly regarded as one of the greatest releases ever made. While its importance is indisputable, the same cannot be said about its merits.

As a three-hour intergenerational, international period piece masquerading as a pulpy gangster drama, it is mainstream claptrap for a wide audience.

Nino Rota’s romantic score, though a classic, is out of place in what ought to be a gritty crime saga, and this tonal inconsistency is what kneecaps the text’s greatness.

It belongs in the same class as Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939) or David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), not when it should be the next William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). It’s unethical because it quite literally romanticizes the Mafia for young men.

Pretensions aside, The Godfather redeems itself through Brando. His performance in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1950) is a masterclass in method acting, and he is iconic as the eponymous Godfather.

It’s not only his dialogue but also his delivery, that makes Vito Corleone such a moment of a character.

And Puzo and Coppola’s screenplay is peppered throughout with quotable lines. They do weave a mythological tapestry rich enough to inspire two epic-length sequels, and it could have been as genius as The Conversation if not for the commercialization of its style.

Make no mistake, The Godfather is a studio production, which is why Coppola didn’t win Best Director; as it stands, anybody else could have made it just as well, if not better.

But the film is a mile marker for Italian American representation.

It’s not altogether positive representation, but it’s a cast of Italian American actors (well… except for Caan) playing Italian American characters under an Italian American director according to a script written by two Italian Americans, and it was a cultural phenomenon.

One of the reasons The Godfather Part II (1974) surpasses its predecessor is because it unpacks the oppression Italian Americans face, as well as the extenuating circumstances that backed a slim minority of them into a corner where there was no way out but organized crime.

Without The Godfather, we wouldn’t have Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), or, for that matter, The Conversation, and, for that, it is a worthwhile piece of cinematic history, warts and all.

A mailed-in directorial style is better than an unwatchable one, and an ambitious title is always welcome in an industry that favors the safe over the gutsy.

Frustratingly, however, The Godfather is a groundbreaking work that plays it safe (unlike Goodfellas), but, then again, maybe it had to, to break new ground.

Hulu review: Terence Young’s “Dr. No” (1962)

The mid-twentieth century posed an identity crisis for all of the West, but for the United Kingdom most of all. With the breakup of the British Empire following World War II and the expansion of the Soviet Union in the East, European colonialism was under attack.

It was to be expected for the white male wish-fulfillment that is James Bond to infiltrate English cinema for the next sixty years, which is why 007’s first outing is as dated as curdled milk.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962) is available to stream on Hulu. The spy film is an adaptation of the 1958 novel of the same name by Ian Fleming.

Since its release, it is estimated that a quarter of the world’s population has seen at least one of the twenty-four subsequent Bond pictures produced by Eon.

In Jamaica, MI6 Station Chief John Strangways (Timothy Moxon, voiced by Robert Rietty) is assassinated alongside his secretary, Mary Trueblood (Dolores Keator), by “the Three Blind Mice” (uncredited), who steal documents related to “Crab Key” and “Doctor No.”

The Head of the British Secret Service, M (Bernard Lee), dispatches Agent James Bond (Sir Sean Connery) to look into Strangways’s cooperation with the American CIA on a case of disrupted rocket launches in Cape Canaveral via radio jamming.

Bond’s investigation crosses paths with the treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the beautiful Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress, speaking voice by Nikki van der Zyl and singing voice by Diana Coupland) before leading him to the lair of Doctor No (Joseph Wiseman).

The movie is iconic for what would go on to become James Bond’s most recognizable tropes (Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme,” Maurice Binder’s gun-barrel title sequence, Connery’s line, “Bond, James Bond,” the “Bond girls,” the campy villain, et cetera).

Without it, we wouldn’t have Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) or Sam Mendes’s Skyfall (2012). But even those superior entries are still answering for the sociopolitical sins of their father.

Intersectionally, Dr. No is as insensitive with its representation as to the most toxically masculine, white supremacist Bond flick you can think of.

Marshall and Wiseman are both white actors playing Asian characters: Miss Taro fulfills the “dragon lady” stereotype of the duplicitous Asian woman seducing the white hero with her exoticism; and Doctor No, the evil Chinese genius plotting to take over the world.

The very setting of the film is symptomatic of the English filmmaker’s juxtaposition of the “civilized” British protagonist against the “barbaric” Third World.

Edward Said’s theories on orientalism state that Western thought can be traced back to René Descartes’s philosophication, “I think, therefore, I am.”

This state of “being” versus “nonbeing” can exist only in a universe of opposites, and, in such a universe, post-Descartes white culture was bound to see anything different from itself as the opposite, as the “unculture” to its “culture,” as an evil to be vanquished.

Bond’s travels to settings like Kingston mimic this invader’s narrative.

And the very casting of Connery itself turned out to be a poor choice for the film’s politics. He said during a Barbara Walters interview he condones violence against women.

As if Bond’s womanizing ways weren’t problematic enough.

And what makes it problematic is what feeds more into the white British male’s power fantasy. Bond always “gets the girl” at the end, objectifying his romantic leads into spoils of war.

The sexualization of “foreign” women is the apparatus through which white Europeans have committed their genocide-by-rape.

But, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge co-scripting Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die (2020) and with men and women of color in talks to replace Daniel Craig (who, in and of himself, is redemption for Connery’s Bond), 007 is on its way out from under the shadow of Dr. No.

But, because it’s the one that started it all, Bond will forever have to answer for it. As a (critical) fan of the character, this reviewer doesn’t even enjoy it for what it is – it is offensive, tired, and, worst of all, boring.

Netflix review: David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” (1965)

The Golden Age of Classical Hollywood effectively ended with the Paramount Decree in 1948, when an antitrust United States Supreme Court divested the studios of their theater holdings.

Forced to compete for screen space to compensate for the lost revenue, producers and executives resorted to gimmickry to attract audiences.

Then, with the advent of television around the same time, the cinematic arts were faced with an identity crisis as they recalibrated into technically ambitious, colorful melodramas TV simply couldn’t emulate at the time.

David Lean was the master of such large-scale spectacles, and his Doctor Zhivago (1965) is one of the last of its kind before the Second Golden Age of Hollywood took root later in the decade.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Doctor Zhivago is available to stream on Netflix. The epic romantic drama is based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, which was banned in the Soviet Union, so shooting largely took place in Spain.

It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won five, all technical.

Functioning as a narrative framing device, KGB Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago (Sir Alec Guinness) believes he has found the daughter of his half-brother, Doctor Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (Omar Sharif), and his lover, Larissa “Lara” Antipova (Julie Christie).

It is the late 1940s or early 1950s Soviet Union, and as Yevgraf tells Tanya Komarova (Rita Tushingham) the story of Yuri’s life, we learn, via flashback, about his marriage to Tonya Gromeko (Geraldine Chaplin) during the Russian Revolution, and his love affair with Lara.

Lara’s husband, Pavel “Pasha” Antipova (Tom Courtenay), is a Red Army commander, and Yuri – a poet at heart – must flee for his life with his family when the new Communist government condemns his art as anti-leftist.

At a three-and-a-half-hour runtime with a period piece dramatization spanning two generations over half a century in a setting as culturally and historically rich as Russia, Doctor Zhivago is over the top and larger than life in all the best ways.

Freddie Young’s Oscar-winning photography as well as Maurice Jarre’s award-winning score mix together into a heady cinematic cocktail with the drama of Robert Bolt’s Best Adapted Screenplay.

The USSR of Doctor Zhivago sweeps across the screen as continentally as the Russian Empire itself. And, politically, it is a bold piece of filmmaking to come out of Cold War Europe (the picture is not a Hollywood production, but, rather, British and Italian).

It decries the totalitarian Soviet Union at a time when tensions between East and West were heating up in Vietnam.

For such a commercial feature, cashing in on that era’s craze for Technicolor, CinemaScope releases, what sets it apart from, say, Viktor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939), is its commentary on a contemporaneous superpower.

Conversely, though, the movie depoliticizes the title character from page to screen. In the book, Yuri supports the Revolution, just not the direction it takes.

In an effort to make him a more marketable hero to Western viewers, Lean offers a more unambiguous anticommunist critique, which oversimplifies Pasternak’s source material into a capitalistically friendly cash grab.

It stops short of becoming right-wing propaganda, though, which is why Doctor Zhivago has aged into a classic for the old-fashioned streamer. It is excessive and self-indulgent, but only because there’s more for the cinephile to get lost in.

As one of the highest-grossing releases of all time (adjusted for inflation), it is an important part of cinematic history as the events it reconstructs are world history.

Amazon Prime review: George Lucas’s “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977)

George Lucas’s fellow movie brat, Steven Spielberg, may have invented the summer blockbuster with his Jaws (1975) two years before, but it is Lucas who’s responsible for the multimedia franchise as we know it today.

The Star Wars saga is a hotbed for sequels, merchandise, and derivative works, and it all started with a relatively modest passion project from a young auteur.

It birthed a new era of filmmaking.

And it killed the Hollywood Renaissance.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is available on Amazon Prime.

The epic space opera was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and won eight, including two special Oscars. The auteur also penned the script.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Galactic Imperial Senator Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) flees an Imperial Star Destroyer under the command of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) after stealing the plans to the Empire’s Death Star for the Rebellion.

Vader captures Leia’s starship, but not before she dispatches two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to the desert planet of Tatooine bearing a message for retired Jedi Master Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Best Supporting Actor nominee Sir Alec Guinness).

The droids are discovered by farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the son of Obi-Wan’s apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, who enlists smugglers Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to fly Obi-Wan to the Death Star so they can rescue Leia.

Originally titled Star Wars, it can be an obstacle to divorce A New Hope from the mythology that is its legacy for this critic, who was born into a world already saturated with Star Wars and has no way of remembering a time before it, or experiencing it how audiences did upon its release.

Except for Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), all Star Wars films are inferior to A New Hope. Knowing the downturn the saga will take before even going into the one that started it all, it can be a lot to ask to fall in love with it at first sight.

Regardless, A New Hope is an imaginative Wild West fairytale set in outer space, a prototypical hero’s journey explored through a once-in-a-lifetime creative mind.

Like the commoners in Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1954) and the “cripples, bastards, and broken things” in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), the good guys here are two bickering robots, an orphan, an eccentric old man, and two criminals.

As for the villains, they are not the Emperor himself, but, rather, his bureaucratic henchmen. It goes to show even the unlikeliest person can do the right thing, and even the lowest government official can be an oppressor.

And in the hands of any other screenwriter, Princess Leia would be a damsel in distress. Instead, she is an assertive, straight-shooting leader who saves herself, and her rescuers (none of whom “get the girl” at the end).

It’s almost enough to make up for the movie’s lack of intersectional diversity.

But Star Wars is more praiseworthy than A New Hope. Unethically, Lucas has revised each rerelease of his masterpiece beyond recognition to retroactively co-opt it into the mythos he wove around it, thus bastardizing the version that his fans first obsessed over.

When you unleash a work of art into the world, it belongs no longer to you, but, rather, to the audience it inspires – otherwise, of what worth is that inspiration?

Revisionism aside, Lucas may be the worst thing to happen to his own creation, but he’s also the best, like how Star Wars is the best and worst thing to happen to cinema.

Love it or hate it, if moviemaking has always been about making money, then Star Wars is important, and Lucas was forward-thinking enough to singlehandedly anticipate the zeitgeist even as we know it today.

To all the viewers who made it one of the top grossers of all time (adjusted for inflation), A New Hope is a nostalgic, childlike dream bringing strangers together, and that is what keeps them coming back to the series again, hoping (in vain) to relive that movie magic for the first time.

Hulu review: Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” (1992)

With only fifty-three percent of reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes praising Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), this Hitchcockian classic of its time is an underrated and misunderstood film.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Basic Instinct is available to stream on Hulu. The neo-noir erotic thriller was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Original Score.

It was the fourth-highest-grossing release of its year, despite a divided critical reaction and public protests from gay rights activists.

Set in San Francisco, troubled homicide detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) investigates the murder of Johnny Boz (Bill Cable), who was stabbed to death with an icepick during sex with a mysterious blonde.

The prime suspect is crime novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), Boz’s bisexual girlfriend, who wrote a book about the killing before it was committed and claims an obsessive devotee is setting her up.

As Catherine lures Nick into her world of sex and drugs and violence, his relationship with police psychiatrist Doctor Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) grows increasingly deadly.

Douglas may get top billing, but Stone is the star of the show. She carries herself with confidence and intelligence and just the right amount of danger.

The most recognition she engendered for her star-making turn was a Golden Globe nod because audiences fail to take her seriously after the infamous interrogation scene.

Like Emilia Clarke in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Stone is more talented than people are willing to give her credit for, and there’s more to her performance than the beauty that meets the eye.

This is due to Verhoeven’s direction. Stone reprises her role in Michael Canton-Jones’s Basic Instinct 2 (2006), but even though it’s the same actor playing the same part, Catherine Tramell is borderline unwatchable in the sequel.

Verhoeven characterizes Tramell as the postmodern femme fatale, who seduces and kills with no loftier motive than that she looks good doing it.

The movie was controversial upon its release for its representation of bisexual women, and while there is something to be said about Hollywood’s lengthy history of demonizing lesbians, and while Basic Instinct exploits lesbianism for the male gaze, it is still ahead of its time sexually.

Catherine and her lover, Roxy Hardy (Leilani Sarelle), are both feminine.

Conversely, in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010), not only do Annette Benning and Julianne Moore conform to “butch” and “femme” gender roles, respectively, but the more feminine of the two also is the one to have an affair with Mark Ruffalo.

Narratively, though, Basic Instinct is overlong, convoluted, and repetitive. In the end, what the central mystery boils down to is an elaborate revenge plan the villain would have had to be nigh clairvoyant to cook up.

Logically, the drama demands more than its fair share of suspension of disbelief.

But Basic Instinct is more… well… instinctual than it is rational, and, for that, it is cinema at its most dreamlike.

Netflix review: Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001)

With all the British period drama trappings of Michael Engler’s Downton Abbey (2019) as well as the “whodunit” flare of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) is just as relevant to contemporary cinephiles as it was at the turn of the millennium.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Gosford Park is available to stream on Netflix.

The mystery black comedy social satire won Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay out of seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith.

The auteur also co-produced the ensemble picture.

Set in November 1932 England, industrialist Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) invites his extended family over for a weekend shooting party at their country estate, Gosford Park. Everybody is a suspect when the loathsome Sir William is murdered.

Alternating between the perspectives of the wealthy guests and their impoverished servants, who all have secrets to hide, this comedy of manners is as much about its setting as it is its mystery.

Altman’s signature style is more auditory than it is visual, and Gosford Park ought to have been nominated for its sound design.

As with his MASH (1970), the cacophonous dialogue overlaps to a sometimes unintelligible degree, which is not only true to life (seldom do people wait for cues to take their turn speaking) but also externalizes the chaos of the setting.

For MASH, it’s wartime Korea; in Gosford Park, it’s the imperialist West.

The script deftly deconstructs postindustrial-capitalist classist themes through the microcosm of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. It is ethically written, too – victim and perpetrator alike get the justice they deserve in the end.

With billionaires like Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg running for President of the United States after buying the silence of women, Gosford Park is no less timely for its age or setting.

For its genre, though, the editing is less than ideal. At close to two and a half hours, the runtime runs counter to a genre that values tight pacing. Every scene in a thriller must lead into the next; Gosford Park was not recognized for its editing, and it shows.

But the scene-padding in Gosford Park develops its cast of characters literarily, and if it’s too much of anything, it’s too much of a good thing.