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Taking a Really Good Look
Perhaps you won’t want to peer too deeply into the darkly comic portrait
American Beauty paints; you might see yourself staring back. Disturbingly sad and outrageously funny, director Sam Mendes’ masterful interpretation of Alan Ball’s boldly candid script enjoys a liberating instinct for taking artistic risks. And most of them pay off.
An unsettling deconstruction of the American family, this absorbing motion picture dares say what is generally reserved for the more private recesses of our national psyche. All of which is fine and dandy.
But what truly distinguishes this ingenious effort can best be described as a cinematic magic trick: American Beauty
convincingly conjures a transcending beauty for its every sadness. All the sensory buttons are pressed. The emotional sorcery is as shocking as it is entertaining.
The movie’s case in point is the Burnham family: Carolyn, Lester and their teenaged daughter, Jane. They are the very image of solid middle class, firmly white collar..... right down to the picket fence surrounding their eightroom Colonial in suburbia. But that’s where the picture stops being pretty.
For inside dwells a most unhappy family, each member thereof living in embittered alienation, though only Jane, splendidly represented by Thora Birch, consciously knows it at the outset. The dearth of familial love shows painfully on their faces.
A successful real estate broker who subscribes to the Martha Stewart school of social pretense and emotional repression, Carolyn, superbly exacted by Annette Bening, has now come to regularly harp on Lester solely as a function of habit; provocation became unnecessary some years ago. No day is complete without one of her indignant diatribes.
Meanwhile, poor put upon Lester, a publishing executive excellently imagined by Kevin Spacey, automatically returns Carolyn’s vitriolic volleys with the skill of a veteran tennis player. Jane, her teenaged hormones in full rage, just looks on in total disgust. So don’t let the elegant candles and the perfectly balanced meal fool you.
At the dinner table a frustrated anger permeates the terse, subtly threatening conversation, each tacitly blaming the other as the cause of his or her unhappiness.
We sadly speculate..... when was it that the Burnhams stopped being a happy family? (Were they ever?) How did this insidious enmity come to cloak them in its suffocating shadow of despair? Though lacking the patrician background and a North Shore address, they are nevertheless distant cousins of the disaffected folks in Ordinary People (1980).
Of course, it’s always darkest just before dawn. Hence Lester, who narrates the tale with droll authority, learns that he might soon be downsized, that late 20th century euphemism for being fired, canned, let go, sacked or just plain told you’re useless.
He is ordered to enumerate his job functions for review. He will not! And from these ashes rises Lester’s phoenix; his grand epiphany is at hand.
Sick and tired, he’s not going to take it anymore. For starters, he quits the thankless job before they can do him in, successfully blackmailing his way to a full year’s severance pay in the bargain.
And on his way home, 42yearold Lester buys the red 1970 Firebird he’s wanted ever since he was a teenager. He also stops off and gains a noresponsibil ity gig as the drivethru hamburger jockey
at Mr. Smiley’s. Oh joy and rapture. He has kicked off his leg irons and shackles. Though, there is one sticky byproduct resulting from Lester’s revelations: much to his daughter’s chagrin and barely able to conceal it, he has fallen head over heels for her sexy girlfriend, Angela, played with flirtatious flair by Mena Suvari. And picking up on the older dude’s infatuation, gleeful Angela hurtfully chides Jane.
Thus, the film’s sense of whimsy is put into full swing. From here on, heartfelt philosophy and raucously black comedy alternate for attention, ultimately jibing into a delicious blend of uniquely startling developments.
Movies this deep into oddball territory are usually obscure. But while American Beauty is wonderfully strange, it is hauntingly familiar.
Understandably, Mrs. Burnham is miffed and confused by hubby’s unilateral revolution. But then, the analretentive house peddler has her own little irons in the fire. And while the juicy details won’t be divulged here, suffice it to note that Peter Gallagher as Buddy The Real Estate King Kane figures humorously in her successdriven ruminations.
But beware, because danger and the unexpected lurk around each corner of this supremely surprising set of character studies. Things are never what they seem. And if you think the Burnhams are dysfunctional, just wait until you get a load of the gang next door.
There resides retired United States Marine Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), his nearly catatonic wife Barbara (Allison Janney) and their badly abused son, Ricky (Wes Bentley) who, oddly enough, serves as the movie’s spiritual center.
Rumors at school say he has spent time in a mental institution. Truth is, Ricky’s painful travail at the cruel hands of his homophobic father has made the 18yearold marijuana dealer come to see the wondrous beauty in everything. Inverting gungho Dad’s lessons on military discipline, he has taught himself to fear nothing.
It is through Ricky’s graceful martyrdom that Lester’s awakening gains its glorious inspiration. And Jane, though initially put off by the bizarre new boy’s romantic advances, especially his voyeuristic videotaping of her every move, is ultimately attracted by his sweetly weird selfassuredness.
Dissection of the Familius Americanus is a literary sport with a long and respected history. And though the language and landscape of introspection changes with the decades, it is clear that this trenchant tale of two families makes its contribution to the timehonored tradition.
In fact, look just beyond American Beauty’s cutting edge contemporaneity and you may recall the nextdoor neighbors in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in its time a drama with a controversial dark side of its own (though the 1940 film version of the original stage play was lightened).
Each story proffers a melancholy fatalism, explores the foibles of vanity, touts the panacea of love and urges us to embrace optimism despite reliable information to the contrary. That aside, both are scathingly honest. If truth is indeed beauty, American Beauty is a real knockout.
* * * * *
American Beauty, rated R, is a DreamWorks Pictures release directed by Sam Mendes and stars Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening and Thora Birch. Running time: 121 minutes.
Arts & Entertainment Arts & Entertainment Arts & Entertainment Arts & Entertainment Arts & Entertainment
W WW WWestfield Fife and Drum Corp estfield Fife and Drum Corp estfield Fife and Drum Corp estfield Fife and Drum Corp estfield Fife and Drum Corp Earns First Place at Competition Earns First Place at Competition Earns First Place at Competition Earns First Place at Competition Earns First Place at Competition
FIRST FIFERS… Earning first place in the Fifer Class, pictured, left to right, are: Kyle Daley of Millburn, Michael Sherry of Westfield, Scott Daley of Millburn and Alison Mack of Scotch Plains, who competed as a quartet at the North Eastern States Championship Drum Corps held in Connecticut on September 11.
WESTFIELD – Earning first place in the Fifer Class, Kyle Daley of Millburn, Michael Sherry of Westfield, Scott Daley of Millburn and Alison Mack of Scotch Plains, competed as a quartet at the North Eastern States Championship Drum Corps held in Connecticut on September 11.
The participants are judged on their playing ability and only one prize is awarded in each corps playing class.
The quartet was instructed by James Douglas of Plainfield, a wellknown fifer.
The Corps recently earned the “Most Outstanding Visiting Entry” during the 1999 Labor Day Parade in South Plainfield’s 42nd Annual Labor Day Parade.
In 2000, the Westfield Fife and Drum Corps will be celebrating
its 25th anniversary. Any child age 9 or older is welcome to join.
For more information, please call (908) 6367105.
For For For For Fore ee eever Plaid ver Plaid ver Plaid ver Plaid ver Plaid Opens Friday Opens Friday Opens Friday Opens Friday Opens Friday At Cranfor At Cranfor At Cranfor At Cranfor At Cranford Dramatic Club d Dramatic Club d Dramatic Club d Dramatic Club d Dramatic Club
CRANFORD – Forever Plaid, a humorous, tuneful and nostalgic look at the 1950s, will open on Friday and Saturday, October 8 and 9, at 8 p. m. at the Cranford Dramatic Club, 78 Winans Avenue, Cranford.
Starring Chris Bentivegna, Rick Brown, Bob Byrnes and Roger Hayden, Forever Plaid includes popular songs such as “Rags to Riches,” “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Cry,” “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Sixteen Tons.”
The production also includes a homage to Perry Como, The Kingston Trio, Elvis Presley and a fiveminute production of “The Ed Sullivan Show” with jugglers,
a dog act and other performances.
Forever Plaid is directed by Drude Roessler of Westfield, choreographed by Janice Lynn, with musical direction and accompaniment by Anjanette Valiante.
Performances of Forever Plaid
will be held on Fridays, October 8, 15 and 22, and Saturdays, October 9, 16 and 23. All shows will open at 8 p. m.
Tickets are $15 and are available at the box office hotline, (908) 2767611. Visa and Mastercard are accepted. Subscriptions for the entire season of Forever Plaid, Mame and Lend Me a Tenor are $35. The theater offers free, lighted, onsite parking.
Autumn Festival set In Downtown Cranford
CRANFORD – The 9th Annual Autumn Festival will be held in downtown Cranford on Sunday, October 10, from 11 a. m. to 5 p. m.
Fine art, crafts, food from local vendors and children’s activities will be available.
Admission is free. The raindate will be Sunday, October 17. Exhibit space is still available.
For more information, please call The Advertising Alliance at (908) 9963036.
Calv Calv Calv Calv Calvary Concert Series ary Concert Series ary Concert Series ary Concert Series ary Concert Series T TT TTo Pr o Pr o Pr o Pr o Present Guitar Duo esent Guitar Duo esent Guitar Duo esent Guitar Duo esent Guitar Duo
CRANFORD – The Calvary Concert Series will present the guitar duo of Michael Newman and Laura Oltman on Sunday, October 17, at 4 p. m. at Calvary Lutheran Church, 108 Eastman Street in Cranford.
Mr. Newman and Ms. Oltman have been performing together since they met at the Aspen Music Festival in 1977. The duo is EnsembleinResidence at the Mannes College of Music in New York and recipient of National Endowment for the Arts Recital ist Fellowship.
Their concert tours have taken them to 49 states and abroad.
Tickets are $10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and students with identification
and children. Tickets may be purchased by calling
Calvary Lutheran Church at (908) 2762418.
The next music program will feature pianist John Root on Sunday, November 14.
For more information or to request a brochure, please call the church.
W WW WWestfield Symphony Or estfield Symphony Or estfield Symphony Or estfield Symphony Or estfield Symphony Orchestra chestra chestra chestra chestra Opens Season This Satur Opens Season This Satur Opens Season This Satur Opens Season This Satur Opens Season This Saturday day day day day
WESTFIELD – The Westfield Symphony Orchestra (WSO) will open its 17 th concert series with an “Invitation to the Dance,” conducted by Music Conductor David Wroe and sponsored by Merck & Co., Inc. on Saturday, October 9, at 8 p. m. at the Union County Arts Center in Rahway.
The program will feature Copland’s Rodeo
Dance Episodes for Orchestra and Sarasate’s Z i g e u n e r w e i s e n (Gypsy Dances). The recent composition of the orchestra’s Composer in Residence, Richard Nanes, entitled,
Rhapsody for Violin, culminating with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 will also be special highlights of the concert.
Mr. Nanes will join Maestro Wroe for the “Classical Conversations,” an educational lecture open to all ticket holders, preceding the concert at 7 p. m.
“We are fortunate to be able to offer Richard Nanes’ unique perspective and insight to those who attend the educational talk, particularly regarding his Rhapsody for Violin which has been performed by the soloist, Zina Schiff, so widely here and abroad.”
Mr. Nanes was named WSO’s Composer in Residence at the commencement of the 19981999 season.
Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Nanes began his musical education at
age 5 and studied in the Northeast and at the Conservatoire National Superieure de Musique in Paris. He considers his work to be Neoromantic and strongly influenced by the Romantic and Modern periods. He also holds great respect for the forms and practices of the Baroque era.
Mr. Nanes has performed with orchestras worldwide. In March 1999,
Rhapsody for Violin
was featured at the Budapest International Spring Music Festival. In April, New Jersey Network Television presented three specials featuring his music.
The WSO’s theme for its new season is “Enchantment.” “Each concert in the series celebrates the positive and uplifting spirit within us all — that’s the WSO’s gift as we embark on the new century. In the first concert, the audience will be swept up by the music of such pieces as HoeDown
from Rodeo and the steamywild pulse of Sarasate’s Gypsy Dances,” stated Maestro Wroe.
Tickets for the concert may be reserved by calling the Union County Arts Center Box Office at (732) 4998226, or purchased at The Music Staff, Burgdorff Realtors ERA, Lancaster Ltd. and The Town Book Store, all of Westfield, or Richard Roberts, Ltd. of Scotch Plains or Martin Jewelers of Cranford.
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