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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » American Beauty
American Beauty
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted October 23, 2000 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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The Movie:

Believe it or not, I actually missed "American Beauty" in its theatrical run. This wait was further lengthened when Dreamworks made the decision to release the VHS first (I'll hold back my anger about that decision...). One night when I couldn't sleep, I happened to catch the film on pay-per-view. And I sat, stunned, as the next two hours unfolded. As many already know, "Beauty" seemed to win the majority of the awards last year, and it deserved its acclaim. I felt that rarely does the movie take an awkward step.

The performances are lead by a fantastic one from Kevin Spacey as father Lester Burnham. Ignored by the rest of his family and working at a job he hates, his early words summarize his life perfectly; "In a way, I'm dead already." The story of the film is how Lester attempts to get his life back and turn things around, fueled by one event.

One night his wife Carolyn(Annette Benning) takes him to see his daughter Jane(Thora Birch)'s cheerleading squad at work. He sees Angela(Mena Suvari), Jane's friend who he falls in love with at first sight. He starts working out, he quits (well...blackmails) his boss and starts working at a fast food joint. And everything is finally...right, at least for the moment.

Even in the momentary happiness, things are begining to break apart again. Jane is unhappy and thinking of running away with the boy next door, Ricky(Wes Bentley). Ricky doesn't live a particularly happy life, either - his mother (the always great Allison Janney) is not quite there, and his father (Chris Cooper) makes him go through random drug testing when he isn't capturing the world around him with his video camera. In the meantime, Carolyn is having an affair with another local real-estate agent. Obviously, the situation is a few steps away from collapsing, and in the remainder, we find the tragic results.

Performances are worthy of the awards they've recieved. Spacey has obviously found another great role in the list of many recent great onces. Here, he rivals the great performance that's one of my favorites of all-time (in one of my favorite films of all time), that of Verbal Kint in "The Usual Suspects". Benning is perfectly irritating as the evil version of the suburban housewife, and Birch (who's come a long way from her staring role in "Alaska") is also very good. The supporting cast is fine as well, lead by Bentley and the always enjoyable Suvari.

"American Beauty" is, in my opinion, a great movie. Maybe one that's not for everyone (neither was "Fight Club", which remains another favorite from 1999), but it's thought-provoking and well-written, containing some great performances - the highlight of which is Spacey's marvelous effort.


VIDEO: While certainly not terrible, the video quality is the only element of this disc that comes up a bit short compared to the excellent work that Dreamworks has done on their previous releases. Sharpness seems generally enjoyable, although there are a couple of moments where the picture seems to go slightly into softness. Detail remains fine as well, and clarity is good, even in the darker sequences in the film.

Tiny marks on the print occasionally make an appearance during the film, remaining somewhat noticable but not distracting. A couple of slight, brief instances of pixelation come up as well, although again not anything terribly noticable. Some scenes also have a bit of light grain visible.

Colors are the best element of the presentation, going from at times a cooler color palette to the warm reds of the roses occasionally entering scenes, colors look beautiful. Well-saturated and rich, they provide some fantastic looking images, with Conrad Hall's cinematography overall being particularly amazing throughout the film.

Again, this isn't a bad presentation at all, but it lacks a certain smoothness overall that brings it down a notch below the usual efforts from the studio.

SOUND: Dreamworks offers both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio on "American Beauty", and I didn't really find much of a difference between either of them. The DTS version is a tad cleaner and fuller sounding, but these are minor differences. The soundtrack is, of course, primarily a music and dialogue-driven experience, with not a great deal of surround use throughout the picture. Thomas Newman's highly enjoyable score comes through with a nice presence and strong clarity, really providing the element that "opens up" the audio. Dialogue, most important in a movie like this one, comes through clearly and is easily understood.

MENUS:: Menus are animated, with the main menu providing a clip from the film and music in the background. Most of the sub-menus provide film-themed images & animation as well.


Commentary: This is a commentary track from director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball, although Ball rarely comments. Mendes seems excited to be providing a commentary track and a fan of the format. Once he begins, he shows that he's certainly able to provide an excellent track of his own as well. The director goes through the film and provides the background details of many of the scenes, from what it was like to work with the actors, technical details such as the few effects shots, and other production notes. He also provides his own insights on the characters and the story, and his analysis of the on-screen events provides an often fascinating viewpoint into what happens. It's a great commentary that really is both entertaining as Mendes provides a bit of humor now and then, and insight.

Storyboard Presentation: This is a particularly fascinating extra feature that provides commentary from cinematographer Conrad Hall and director Sam Mendes. In this hour-long feature (which is definitely the best extra on this disc), storyboards for a particular scene come up on one side of the film, and pictures from that scene come up on the other side. It runs on its own, but it's the comments between the two are wonderfully insightful and fun to listen to. Where that sort of back-and-forth comments and insight was lacking in the Ball/Mendes pairing of the main commentary, this really is a much more equal offering, with Hall talking a great detail about the process of creating a visual look for a film like this one. To summarize my feelings for how good this feature is, I would have gladly paid a bit more if this feature had been expanded to feature length and put onto another supplemental disc. It's that good.

Theatrical Trailers: Here, we get 2 trailers for the film, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. I think Dreamworks did a particularly good job with the marketing of the film, and these two trailers were the base of the strong promotional work.

Look Closer: Making Of: There are those documentaries that do a fine job walking the line between promotional and informative and this is an example of that. Interviews with the cast and crew provide the details of how the film came together and the layers behind the characters and story. At a little over 20 minutes in length, it's a good documentary but not something I think that many will review more than once.

Also: Cast and crew bios, production notes and DVD-ROM features, including the ability to view script and storyboards while watching the film (DVD-ROM ONLY).

Final Thoughts: "American Beauty" is certainly a great film that I highly recommend. Again, although I'm very unhappy that the DVD is being released this late, Dreamworks has done a fine job. The video quality is good, but not great - but the other elements (especially the extras with the wonderful storyboard commentary feature with Hall & Mendes) are solid.

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