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American Beauty
The Awards Edition

review by Zach B.

 

Rated R

Studio: Dreamworks

Running Time: 124 minutes

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper

Written by Alan Ball

Directed by Sam Mendes

Retail Price: $26.99

Features: Commentary with Alan Ball and Sam Mendes, Featurette, Storyboard Comparison, Theatrical Trailers, Cast and Crew Bios, Production Notes, DVD-ROM: Screenplay, Weblinks

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DTS 5.1, English Subtitles, Chapter Search

Where to begin... where to begin... I'm not sure what I could say what already has been said about "American Beauty", which has been piled into history with countless rave reviews and an impressive amount of awards and nominations. I'll be honest, I never got the chance to see "American Beauty" in the theater, despite the fact how much I wanted to. I will admit though that when I originally saw the trailer, I thought the film looked horrible and somewhat stupid. I was dead wrong, I read sooo many rave reviews and then I wanted to see it, but I never got a chance to. Yet when I got to finally see the film, I was blown away. So let me look closer (forgive me for using the tagline) at the film...

The Burnhams may seem like your average, modern middle-class American family. Lester works for a magazine company, Carolyn is a real estate agent and their daughter Jane is your typical teenager. However, beneath the surface, we learn that their lives are slowly unraveling. Lester and Carolyn's marriage is over with and all they do is bicker, Jane is completley insecure, and now back to Lester, he's pretty much sick of it all. Yet when he sees the cheerleading friend of Jane, Angela, something inside of Lester snaps. He quits his job and learns to feel free once again. However, Lester learns that the ultimate freedom has the ultimate price. We also have focus on the house next door to the Burnhams, the Fitts, which are nothing like normal. Ricky is the boy next door who is a drug dealer and befriends Jane, his mother is just wacked-up and his father has a rich army background with a hate for homosexuals (as it originally seems). However, these two houses mend into one incredible story known as "American Beauty". I didn't think this movie was a dark comedy as some have called it, but I found it to be a rich, eloping drama with some humor here and there.

Let me first praise the cast. This cast is one of the finest ensembles ever. Each actor/actress perfectly pinpoints their emotions and depth needed for their roles. Kevin Spacey is phenomenal and really deserved that Oscar® as Lester Burnham, the opressed and depressed father going through some sort of crisis. Annette Bening is wonderful as Carolyn, a woman who has no sense of who she is and where her life is going. Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Allison Janey, Peter Gallahger and Wes Bentley are simply wonderful in their great, supporting roles.

Now, onto the behind the scenes sort of things. Sam Mendes' first outing as a director is really, really impressive. He perfectly captures the social commentary and insecuirities of the characters into the film. I found it really interesting that a guy with an English background succeeded in directing a movie about American suburban life. Alan Ball's script is great, great lines and great points he makes through his words. Conrad L. Hall's cinematography works really well here and captures the true essence of the film, and the editing is well done. Oh, and Thomas Newman's quirky score. I couldn't imagine the film without it.

I know a lot of people who hated this film with a passion, and I really can't see why (and of course, there are millions upon million who have warmly embraced it). This movie is really, really well done and I can watch it over and over again, always finding something new and never get bored. If you haven't seen this movie yet, run and look closer at an extradoniary motion picture, where there is nothing quite like it.

 

I found this to be the most disappointing part of the disc. It's not a terrible transfer, but not the quality I've come to expect from Dreamworks, especially considering this film is pretty new and one of their most honored films. A little time and care could have made this what it should have been, but the main thing which plagues this transfer is the excessive amount of grain, blemishes and debris. I found it to be pretty annoying, like it was just taken right from a theater print, no clean up or anything and just transfered right on to the DVD. Beside the grain, there were a few times I felt images were a bit soft and colors felt washed out. Other than that, the transfer has some good points. Some scenes the colors do look good, and detail is nice. I also noticed some really slight artifacting, but nothing major and I doubt anyone will notice. It's a decent transfer... just disappointing because I felt Dreamworks has raised the bar in the past.

The audio was surprisingly good, to my surprise. I didn't know what to expect with either track, but each is booming and brings even more life into the already great film.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital is a great option. Dialogue is clear, the wonderful score by Thomas Newman is brought to full life, and I felt when surrounds were used, they sounded quite good.

However, I like the DTS 5.1 a little bit better, as I felt it was a bit more aggressive and had more dynamic range. You may not realize how much different this could sound from the Dolby Digital, but when you hear it, you can point it out. The finale with the rain, gunshots, just the way it is presented sounds a tad bit different from the Dolby Digital. I felt the music in the DTS had a bit more depth to it, and dialogue was easy to hear.

Make no mistake though, depending on which track you pick, you're in for a very nice listen.

DVD fans became really disappointed too when they learned the film would take a little while longer to come out on their beloved DVD format. Dreamworks' reason was that they wanted to get as many cast and crew members to participate in the DVD. When observing the features and hearing the statement, you instantly think "What the hell were they talking about?". The DVD only features three people as far as major involvment (Mendes, Ball and Cinematographer Conrad Hall), and the features are a bit standard, and I found, disappointing in a few cases. Still, it's better than nothing, but I would have liked to see more and more new ground broken.

First and foremost, what I think is the crown jewel of the disc, is the Audio Commentary with Sam Mendes and Alan Ball. This track is very good for the most part, as Mendes shares some inspirations and insight on the film itself. Yet what disappointed me with this track is that Mendes dominates the track, giving little time for Ball to speak. Where at points I was hoping to hear Ball say a few words, Mendes just kept talking. Still, if you loved the movie you can learn a good amount from here.

American Beauty: Look Closer is a featurette that lasts around 22 minutes (and seems to have noticable commercial stops, this probably aired on TV). I found this featurette to be a bit more promotional, concentrating on the acclaim the film has gotten, but there are some nice interviews with Alan Ball, Sam Mendes and Dreamworks CEO himself, Steven Spielberg. It's worth a watch once.

The Storyboard Comparison lasts about an hour long, and has Sam Mendes and Conrad Hall talking through the whole thing. It's pretty interesting to watch actually, as we see storyboards and how certain scenes were staged. If you plan to watch this though, you'll probably have to do so straight through. Sadly (and with much annoyance), you can't fast foward through this and they're no chapter stops of any kind. Still, it's quite interesting to see how things were set up.

The usual Production Notes (nicely written and detailed) are included, as well as Cast and Crew Bios and two Theatrical Trailers. Also, for you DVD-ROM users, you can read the Screenplay in a nice interface that features the movie in a small box and for some scenes, storyboards. This is very nice (and now you don't have to buy the book which features the screenplay, which does feature some written interviews. Well, that's one way looking at it) and there are some Weblinks for your enjoyment.

What most find disappointing is that Sam Mendes didn't want to put deleted scenes on this disc, because he felt they ruined the integrity of the film and that people would then view it differently. I respect this choice, but Mendes has some notes written in the disc insert which describes an alternative ending involving Jane and Ricky. Still, with all this said, and once again, I really would have liked to see more supplements on the disc after Dreamworks delayed it.

While this film is a modern masterpiece, my thoughts on the DVD are mixed. I felt Dreamworks could have cleaned up the transfer and attempt to add in some more supplements, especially since we had to wait a bit longer for this title. But the supplements we have are good, the transfer is okay and the sound is surprisingly booming. Look closer, and pick yourself up a copy of "American Beauty".

(4.5/5, NOT included in final score)

(3.5/5)

(4.5/5)

(3/5)

(3.5/5, NOT an average)

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