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British born director Sam Mendes is probably best known for his film American Beauty, his first feature length film released in 1999. Most directors don’t win vast amounts of recognition for their first film, let alone awards, but Mendes was nominated for eight Oscars and won five—not to mention eighty-three other film festival wins. His second movie, Road to Perdition (2002) also received a copious amount of attention; it was nominated for six Oscars, and won one. He then went on to create other extremely well known films such as Jarhead (2005), Revolutionary Road (2008) and, Away We Go (2009).
American Beauty deals with a non-traditional look at a man, Lester Burnham, (Kevin Spacey) who is in the middle of a mid-life crisis and develops a crush on his daughter’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). After meeting Angela he completely turned his life around—he quit his job in sales and got a job, instead, at a fast food joint; he begins smoking marijuana; he starts to work out again, etc. etc. Spacey’s wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) is a realtor obsessed with her job almost as much as beating Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) the supposed ‘Realtor King” whom she beings to have an affair with.
Lester’s daughter, Jane, (Thora Birch) develops a relationship with one of the new neighbors, Ricky Fitts who smokes and sell marijuana. His father is a retired United States Marine Corps Colonel and abhors homosexuals, which plays a large role later on in the film. (Deschler) The opening scene is of Jane asking Ricky if he would kill her father for her. This shot was done on a handheld and was filmed by Ricky. The shot is in zoomed in all the way to show the emotion in Jane’s eye after she requested such an act.
It then moves onto an establishing shot of the Lester’s neighbor with Spacey doing a melodramatic voiceover of his day to day life. The voiceover is also a trademark of Sam Mendes, and can be found in most of his films. The whole point of this scene was to show the audience how fake their lives really are, how nobody is whom they appear to be, how everyone everyone knows puts up a facade. After a few scenes it then show us a scene that will alter the rest of the film, probably the most crucial part of the whole movie—when Spacey first sees Angela cheerleading at a high school basketball game.
Shortly after meeting her, he begins to have daydreams about her in which she is completely covered in rose petals and the ones that fall off land all around him. The roses and the red color they contain represent the undying desire and lust that Lester has for Angela. Also, when scenes take place at the Burnham’s house you will notice that almost all the shots have roses in sight. (Rucas) Throughout the entire movie there is a large hint of sexuality. One of the opening scenes was of Lester masturbating in the shower and telling us that it was the “high point of the day” and it “went all downhill from here. Lester changes his entire life because of his crush on Angela, and later on, after meeting Angela, is found masturbating in bed next to Carolyn who wakes up and is disgusted at his actions (Carolyn and Lester were hardly ever shown having any physical contact throughout the movie. ) Carolyn also changes after she beings to have a sexual affair with Buddy; before being with him she was a cold hearted workaholic, but after having a romp with him she begins with loosen up, as seen in the scene where she is singing along to a song while driving gleefully.
Angela also lies about her sexual encounters with men; when she and Lester almost have sex towards the end of the movie she told him it was all a lie. (Mills) Probably the more prominent sexual advance in the movie is toward the end when Frank Fitts, Ricky’s father, mistakes Lester to be homosexual (he was peering out the window into Lester’s house and confused Ricky selling cannabis for him selling sexual acts) and acts upon this knowledge by trying to kiss him. Lester tells him he had the wrong idea. But the ending scene has Lester lying in a pool of his blood, haven just been shot by Frank.
Another Sam Mendes movie, and slightly less serious, is Away We Go, which debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival . This film deals with a young couple, Verona Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) who discover, in the first scene of the movie, that they are expecting a child. Both Verona and Burt are in their last 30s and still find it hard to manage to make a living and how to live everyday life; Verona states that they are “fuck ups”. Verona also lost her parents when she was in her 20s and Burt’s parents shipped off to Belgium a few months before the child was born.
This fact made them consider that they shouldn’t set up roots in the town that they currently are in but take flights to far and wide cities to find the perfect environment to raise their child. (Mungle) Their first stop was Phoenix, Arizona in which they met up with Verona’s old friend Lily and her family. However, from the start they were both disturbed by Lily’s family’s behavior towards each other—insensitive remarks toward each other, their unacceptable nature of speaking to one another.
Shortly after their visit, they ship off to Tucson, Arizona to meet up with Verona’s sister, Grace. This short excursion’s high point was when the sister’s went bath tub shopping and Grace tried to talk about their deceased parents. They then depart to Madison, Wisconsin to visit Burt’s friend/”cousin”, LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is quite the interesting character—she breast feeds her children in public, she is sexually open in front of her children, and she doesn’t believe in strollers, saying that they “push” her children away from her.
When they are all eating dinner together LN kept on telling Verona/Burt how to “properly” raise their child, which greatly angered both of them. They swiftly then left Madison to go to Montreal, Canada to visit friends that they had to college, Munch and Tom. They both fall in love with their large amounts of adopted children and how everyone has been raised. They, leave, however, in a stupor of frustration because they were informed that Munch cannot have children of her own, she miscarriages every time. Harvey) They finally disembark once more to Verona’s old home after Burt heard a story about Verona’s childhood there. The ending scene is of them staring off into the fields stating that they had finally found their home. This movie deals with the complete, and partial, loss of family figures in both of their lives. Which makes both of them turn to other people in their lives for guidance. It also is loosely centered around the psychological debate of nature versus nurture (heredity versus environment) and which more profoundly affects a child.
And because they clearly did not want to raise their child in the environment in which they lived in prior to moving, they are leaning towards environment. This movie is also more “unconventional” in the sense that Verona and Burt are not married—Verona refuses to marry him. Also, in comparison to every other Mendes film, this film did not have a music score performed by Thomas Newman, but rather by Alexi Murdoch.