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American Beauty -- Sapphire Series

Paramount // R // September 21, 2010
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 18, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

"Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser, and they're right," Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) muses in American Beauty's narration, "I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn't always feel this... sedated." That's a sensation many go through at least once in their life, numbness branching off from the rat race of employment, fluctuating happiness, and that lingering tinge that suggests that there's more to this little existence. But Sam Mendes' picture, from a script by TV-writer Alan Ball ("Grace Under Fire", "True Blood"), isn't a meditation on being browbeaten, though that's a key factor to the film's potency. Instead, it's more about the awakening that follows, memorably told with poetic visuals as its trappings and a deep-rooted reflection on our own grievances with materialism, emotional ineptitude, and a yearn for perfection. Though Lester's obviously not a portrait of what should be done under the same situation, there's something liberating about witnessing one's brazen ability to reshape the circumstances in his life.

Lester, a lowly magazine writer, reveals through calm postmortem narration at the beginning of American Beauty that he'll be dead in a year's time. Why, or how, is uncertain, but it almost seems like a sure thing that it'll stem from aggravation. He struggles with being dead-weight in the eyes of his family, both his nagging, successful realtor wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and his socially inert daughter Jane (Thora Burch), all under the roof of the fa├žade that is "the American Dream" -- a house with a red door, flourishing roses, and Laurence Whelk on the stereo during well-balanced dinners. Some live under this guise of happiness for a long time, forever even. Lester, catalyzed by a twisted Lolita-level fantasy of Jane's friend Angela (Mena Suvari) and the freedom of his young, weed-dealing neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley), quickly plunges into acts of desperation to wake up from this self-inflicted coma. His transformation becomes the pivoting point, as we become voyeurs looking upon the Burnham family's dysfunctional collapse with awareness of Lester's demise.

From the initial camcorder footage of Jane, claiming she wants to hire someone to put her "lame-o" short-spraying father out of his misery, American Beauty strikes an equilibrium between dramatic potency and a darkly comedic edge that's, at times, painfully incisive. It's a unique balance, one that might take viewers aback with its awareness of the characters and their idiosyncrasies; we see scenes involving a father awkwardly fawning over his daughter's friend in front of her, the sexual mood-killing nature of spilling a beverage on a $4,000 couch, and that foreboding family discussion of employment over dinner, each peppered with stringent humor. Then, with effortless precision, the tone reverts back into biting critical severity in a snap, tapping right back into the script's insightful appraisals of faux-American happiness. It invokes laughter, yet it's that kind of nervous laughter that'll make you wonder if you're actually laughing at your own domestic strangeness.

American Beauty marks what could've been a difficult debut in film for Sam Mendes, a stage director with successes in British productions of Oliver! and Cabaret under his belt, but his inexperience in the medium never shows. His film moves with a grace that suggests a hint of his theater roots, with bold-yet-convincing projections from his actors and acute attentiveness to the space in which they move, while also clearly showing an understanding for commanding body language. Also likely a product of Mendes' experience in the theater, he constructs a clear-cut, sinuous stride out of his characters transformations, taking Lester from an awkward frump into a confidant stallion with convincing gray-area growth to show his evolution -- and his family discordantly shaping against it. The only place where the integrity slumps under Mendes' hand is in Ricky's household, where his military father (Chris Cooper) and his loopy, scatterbrained mother (Allison Janney) offer well-rendered but ultimately empty-handed melodrama, aside from a few jittery altercations between father and son about the boy's lifestyle.

Enough positive things can't be said about the cast, though, which breathes authenticity into each of the characters. Kevin Spacey leads the way as Lester, and his performance is really something; he's asked to project two levels of the character, one demoralized and another empowered with virility, and the way he adds a level of spunk into his more depressed incarnation and a level of slight insecurity in the other ensnares genuineness. Annette Bening's controlling, possession-focused Carolyn does something similar, allowing little flickers of her character's past self to bubble up from this harsh exterior that's traded "stuff" for intrinsic value as her substance. Wes Bentley's Ricky juxtaposes against her character skillfully, essentially building an old-soul out of the kid that finds beauty in the obscure -- which evolves into his fascination with unique beauty Jane, whom Thora Birch rigidly handles. And, though there's a lack of clear meaning in the story's secondary focus on the Fitts' household, both Chris Cooper and Allison Janney add a frigid, electric air about their interactions that's stunning.

But at its core, American Beauty tells its story through poetic visuals, photographed by Conrad Hall with an eye for lush proportion and vivid coloring that invokes shrewd meaning behind its take-aback gorgeousness. You'll see a lot of the color red throughout the picture, most dominant in the lurid fantasies that Lester shares over his uninhibited cheerleader as she's covered in delicate rose petals. Intriguingly, the same bold shade of red fits into the door of their picturesque home, vibrant even at nighttime and amid rainfall -- another of Mendes' visual triggers. The film doesn't make it a point to hit these emblematic basics over the head like a sledgehammer, instead allowing them to elegantly weave into the film's bold splendor. But by looking closer, there are many connective threads that Mendes and Alan Ball suggest, flirting with deeper magnitude as Hall's cinematography spellbinds on a base level.

Mendes' film becomes a string of challenging, memorable moments because of its host of successes, all beautifully composed as they swell towards an implicit conclusion. Like a puzzle, each piece of the Burnham's domestic rage clicks together into a vivid image that we're prepared for, yet that knowledge of what's to come actually heightens the smoothness of the film's advancement. The mystery -- a soul-searching one, not one of any real suspenseful gravity -- lies in whether Lester's ultimate end will be for naught, or whether his devil-may-care abandon will find the catharsis he needed to awaken from twenty-some-odd years of domestic blackout. As characters vehemently refuse to be victims and desires come to fruition, American Beauty answers its questions with a rewarding, emotionally invigorating close, one that folds challenging thought into a jolt of a poignant climax.

The Blu-ray:

Paramount have released American Beauty as an addition to their Sapphire Series of Blu-rays, which includes a shiny cardboard slipcover with raised lettering at the title. Though the menu above has been taken from the previous DreamWorks DVD, the menu design on this new Blu-ray looks exactly the same -- except the "Audio and Subtitles" have been condensed into one area, "Setup".

Video and Audio:

Easily one of the most anticipated discs on the format, seeing as how the previous DVD dates back nearly ten years, American Beauty arrives from Paramount as an addition to their "Sapphire Series" Blu-ray line. Originally touted as a specialty run of high-definition discs that would go above and beyond the call of duty, initially claiming a higher price tag for their projected excellence, the label's suffered a few hits in the quality department -- from the overly-enhanced rendering of Gladiator to the glitch-riddled audio presentations of Saving Private Ryan, not to mention the Godfather discs that were nothing more than repackaged presentations of the individual films from the collector's set. Oddly, Paramount have been hitting consistent home runs with their non-Sapphire Series discs, including astounding renderings of Collateral, Minority Report, and even Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition, which will stand out as some of 2010's best discs. Sadly, the same high praise can't be sung for the Sapphire Series-branded American Beauty.

Mendes' film arrives in a 1080p AVC encode that preserves its 2.35:1 theatrical ratio, which sports one of legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall's last projects. His work is regarded as some of the most beautiful in the business, and American Beauty marks a point where he infused stylish, robust modern colors with a classic sensibility into Academy Award-winning visuals. Here, though free of glaring distortion/manipulation and a clear improvement over previous incarnations, the cinematography appears somewhat flat and lifeless. Speckles, many of the same from the DVD, can be spotted throughout the print, while the color solidity and a handful of red-leaning skin tones can be a bit erratic. Of course, the lush reds, pastel blues, and flourishing greens are much more vivid here, while detail solidity jumps due to the heightened resolution -- seen in the contours of Suvari's face in the rose-petal scene, bacon bubbling in a skillet, and the flush of rainfall in the film's close. It's a decent disc, just remember to temper expectations.

Similarly, the DTS HD Master Audio track sees a boost in clarity and richness, but it's not quite as night and day as to be expected. Thomas Newman's score, however, does come out of the fray as a clear victor, with the percussion notes (both the marimba-heavy sections and the rhythmic, middle-bass drums) and the piano crescendos reaching deep into the rear channels for an involving musical experience that easily bests the DTS track on the previous disc. However, it's the verbal clarity that feels only marginally superior, with many conversations -- prominent being the back-and-forth between Suvari, Birch, and the two judgmental girls at their school -- having an air of hollowness and lack of awareness of space. Other dialogue, of course, isn't affected by this, such as Spacey's banter with the efficiency expert and Bening's musings as her character cleans the house in the beginning. Still, select effects like rainfall, the squeakiness of a clean window, and the gunfire from Bening's gun at the firing range barrel forward with admirable punch. English, SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are available, along with French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks.

Special Features:

Part of what's supposed to make these Sapphire Series Blu-rays special is the slate of supplemental offerings, which started strong with both Braveheart and Gladiator. It's a bit of a discouragement, however, to see that absolutely no new special features have been made available for American Beauty, only carrying over the features from the 2002 DVD. Considering that several of Paramount's other Blu-rays have offers something new in those regards, including Road to Perdition's explorations of the history behind the film's time period, the lack of any fresh supplements behind one of DreamWorks' central-driving success disappoint. Still, that's not to say the supplements included aren't satisfying, but it certainly leaves a sour taste in the mouth of a fan of the film that'd like to explore new bits -- such as deleted scenes (one in particular), a new retrospective with the filmmakers, or further production sketches.

The Commentary with Sam Mendes and Alan Ball still remains very perceptive and vibrant when compared to today's standard, while the pair -- well, an enthusiastic Mendes mostly -- explore the extents of the character's reactive measures, the process in setting up several of the film's shots, and the ever-elusive deleted ending that was gutted near the end of production. Of course, hearing about that ending once again reveals a missed opportunity on Paramount's part, because including that daring, demeanor-changing sequence would've really driven fans to purchase this disc. Paramount have also included the now-aged Look Closer ... (21:52, SD MPEG-2) celebratory feature that incorporates hammy interviews with scenes from the film, the lengthy-yet-interesting Storyboard to Screen Comparison (1:01:28, SD MPEG-2) that features side-by-side comparisons between frames from the film and the sketches, and two Theatrical Trailers (3:00, HD; 1:22, HD).

Final Thoughts:

I've always had a soft spot for Sam Mendes' American Beauty, an elegant, gorgeously-photographed critique on the stagnancy that can occur under the umbrella of the "modern American family". It mixes dark, genuine humor with a steady stream of searing drama, taking robust performances from the entire cast -- especially Kevin Spacey -- and fusing it all together into a complete, heartbreaking film that's both accessible and affective. That makes it all the more difficult not to give Paramount's Sapphire Series Blu-ray a higher stamp of approval, considering the merely sufficient audiovisual presentation and the lack of new supplements. It's absolutely Recommended based on the film itself, the improvement over the standard-definition DVD, the fact that none of the pertinent extras are lost and the lack of a premium price ($10 less than the loaded Sapphire series discs), but you can't help but feel like this was a missed opportunity for something much more.

Note: Screenshots from this review are from the previous DreamWorks DVD and do no reflect the quality of the Blu-ray disc reviewed.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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