American Beauty

American Beauty (1999)
Dreamworks Home Entertainment
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Thora Birch
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Storyboard Comparison, Trailers, Production Notes, Cast & Crew Biographies

Showered with awards and nominations, Sam Mendes’ "American Beauty" has reached a status that hardly allows you to view the picture without any preconceived notions. The fact that the DVD release had been postponed for a long time now further adds to the expectations put into this release, and I was very eager to see how the whole package lives up in terms of its delivery. Would Dreamworks Home Video’s "Awards Edition" be able to shed some more light on the film than the regular theatrical presentation? Would the package be able to stand up to the hype and the high expectations put into it? I decided to see for myself.

The film tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), an anonymous couple in suburbia. Caught up in his own midlife crisis, Lester begins to realize that his life is nothing what it used to be, or what he wants it to be for that matter. There is a feeling of oppressing unease, of mortality and boredom that almost drives him insane. It all culminates when one day he sees his daughter’s cheerleading parade. Actually he doesn’t see his daughter, really, he sees her friend Angela and has a sexual awakening. His life explodes in front of his eyes and Lester is determined to change his life and bring back the emotions and feelings he used to have. Lester wants to feel alive once again!

At the same time his frustrated wife is beginning an affair with the local real estate king, and while Lester is kicking his job, and spends his time at home, lifting weights, stoned to his eyeballs, she is making frequent stays at cheap motels with her new lover. To top it all off, their teenage daughter Jane is going through a rebellious phase of her puberty and the unabashed hostility of her parents towards each other also doesn’t make her life any easier. Soon she is attracted to Ricky, the shy and isolated, drug-peddling boy next door who puts on a charade of "normality" for his homophobic father.

As we watch these lives rapidly spin out of control, taking turns for the worse, one wonders what will happen next, and director Sam Mendes carefully manages this expectation, topping it off with an unflinching finale. "American Beauty" is a story that could potentially happen to all of us, which makes this film so utterly personal and is certainly the key factor of its success. Not that it will happen to each one of us – at least I don’t hope so – but the events depicted in the film are so very real that practically everyone could find himself caught in a string of events just like this. With its extroverted presentation, the film shows us an array of situations that are utterly real, yet have an almost surreal quality to themselves.

At the same time, "American Beauty" is not an easy movie. Although it is easy to watch and pleasing on the eye, it is a film that is not so quickly absorbed, and I believe that everyone who decides to watch "American Beauty" should be aware of that. Following the late-90s fad of retrospective first-person filmmaking, "American Beauty" opens with yet another voice-over as we are introduced to the film’s basic plot. This plot unravels and intensifies as the movie progresses until the almost liberating climax will leave the viewer speechless, yet confident, as it brings the dramatic arc to a satisfying conclusion.

Dreamworks Home Video is presenting "American Beauty" in its original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio in a transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> television sets. The transfer is highly detailed and balanced, bringing out the best of Conrad L. Hall’s poetic cinematography. The print is clean and mostly without speckles or blemishes, and the film’s grain is held at bay for the most part, limited to only a few select scenes. "American Beauty" uses a very bold color palette that is incredibly articulate and changes with any given scene almost. Sometimes carefully painting the images in pastel tones, the screen is awash in red at others, that is so vibrant that it appears to leap off the screen – quite literally. Still, there is no noticeable over-saturation of colors and skin tones are always faithfully rendered, firmly rooting the film’s color schemes. Blacks are very deep as well, while maintaining very good shadow detail and giving the image a lot of visual depth. Highlights are well balanced, creating radiant highlights that perfectly reflect the movie’s skillfully composed imagery. The compression on the disc is without flaws and there is not a single hint of compression artifacting evident in the transfer. The level of detail maintained by this transfer is staggering, finely reproducing every pore in Kevin Spacey’s face, every subtle shade in the rose petals and every bit of detail in the fine image textures. Without edge-enhancement the transfer has a very film-like quality and a ranks easily among the best transfers ever released on DVD.

Dreamworks Home Video has also gone out all the way, even including a <$DTS,DTS> audio track on the disc alongside a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix and a <$DS,Dolby Surround> track – all in English. "American Beauty" is not an audio-heavy film to begin with, as its sonic support is dialogue-driven, subtle and mostly revolving around the front channels. All-out surround usage is not part of the movie and the rear channels are mostly used to create a breathing ambiance and to give the musical score some extension and wider spatial dimension. All three tracks are of superb quality, and differences between these tracks are truly subtle. Although the 5.1 formats have a bit of a better bass extension, even without making much use of the .1 channel, all tracks have a wide and natural frequency response and great dynamics. Differences between the DTS and the Dolby Digital track on the disc are virtually non-existent. Dialogues have a very natural sounding quality and are well integrated in the overall mix, always understandable and clear, without any distortion or noise.
The DVD also contains an <$commentary,audio commentary> with director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball. The commentary quickly becomes very technical as Mendes carries the torch for the most part and dissects the film almost on a scene-by-scene basis. He explains his intentions as well as the practical execution of many of his shots, giving a lot of very detailed insight in the production process. Ball on the other hand is very restrained and infuses the track only occasionally with his comments.

Another feature on the disc is a 20-minute featurette, entitled "American Beauty: Look Closer…" It is the usual promotional featurette that makes very liberal use of footage from the film and intermingles it with on-set interviews of the actors and crew members. Since the film had received such an immense amount of praise, it is hardly surprising that much of that praise can also be found in this featurette, giving it a bit of a celebratory note. Too celebratory to be of any informative value, actually. It is always a thin line when studios have to decide how to compose their supplemental contents. While some viewers wish to see educational materials only that add to the deeper understanding of the film and the filmmaking process, others obviously prefer the more entertaining, easily consumable, approach. Being the only filmed supplement on this disc, Dreamworks decided to make this featurette easily digestable, although at the price of not really adding anything to the understanding of the movie.

To compensate for that, the disc contains a very interesting storyboard to film comparison that has a very different feel than any I have seen before. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall actually talk about the shots while you see storyboard images and their live-action counterparts on the screen at the same time. Compared to "traditional" storyboard comparisons, this one hour presentation does not leave it to the viewer to evaluate the imagery on the screen, but gives the word to the capable makers of the film as they go through most of the film on a step-by-step basis, discussing many basics, as well as more elaborate details of the production. What the featurette lacks in depth, this feature easily makes up, as it is an extremely detailed, technical and comprehensive lesson on selected aspects of filmmaking.

The DVD is also offering two theatrical trailers, cast and crew biographies and production notes. On top of that, the packaging includes some interesting liner notes by director Sam Mendes that are well worth a read.

"American Beauty" is not the laugh-out-loud comedy or the sad-to-the-bone drama you may expect it to be if you haven’t seen the film before. It is a very thoughtful and artsy movie that combines many elements to create a rather unique and personal movie experience. Blending comedy, drama, social commentary and tragedy in one film certainly isn’t a trivial task, and it is admirable how well "American Beauty" does just that. Dreamworks did a great job, putting together a package that will please casual viewers as well as real film buffs, and I guarantee you, you don’t want to miss this release.