English, Dutch, English - Hearing Impaired, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish
2 Theatrical trailer
Audio commentary - Director & Screenwiter
1 Featurette - 22 min
Storyboards - 61 min, with commentary
R4 . COLOR . 116 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
Hollywood. It is a silly place.
While once-great studios obsess over remakes of old films, reworkings of TV shows and the legendarily indefinable ďstar power,Ē while entertainment new magazines and TV shows descend rapidly into a pit of utter tackiness and snide gossip, while giant multinationals take over the world of American cinema and start referring to films as ďproduct,Ē any movie fan could be forgiven for thinking that the glory days of Hollywood are long gone, with Asia, Europe and Australia poised to become the true innovators of cinema in the new millennium.
And then, occasionally, something wonderful slips through.
A different rose bush
American Beauty was not, at the time of its conception, thought to be a ďblockbusterĒ movie. In fact, it originally wasnít a movie at all, the script having been intended by writer Alan Ball as a stage play. Deals were done, though, and what appeared on paper to be an unassuming little film about unassuming little people became a modestly-budgeted feature film thanks to the insight of Dreamworks, who can innovate with the best when the mood takes them. But thanks to that indefinable but very tangible magic that comes from the right people working on the right movie, American Beauty became one of the most talked-about films in years.
The premise is simple. Ad exec Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his ambitious wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) are stuck in a rut and sinking fast, their joyless marriage plodding aimlessly along while their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) looks on in disgust, wondering why this man she calls her father cannot communicate with her. Once he loses his job (at no small advantage to himself) and lays eyes on his daughterís schoolfriend Angela (Mena Suvari), though, Lester is suddenly very wide awake. Freed in his mind from the life that was strangling him, Lester turns his life upside down and has never been happier. But everything has consequences - and events set in motion long in the past cannot be undone, no matter how great a life change may be taking place.
Watching American Beauty, itís hard not to be reminded, at least peripherally, of the work of David Lynch as well as Paul Thomas Andersonís superb Magnolia. Many of Lynchís films deal with hidden decay in ordinary suburbia, while Magnolia takes a similar approach to the journeys of its characters (in, of course, a very different context) and also touches on the sense of regret and nostalgia at lost opportunity. What makes American Beauty so special and so unique is that everything here rings true, no matter how odd it may seem on the surface. Aside from the dream sequences, nothing here is surreal - people just like this behave just like this every day, and not just in that old cinematic standby location of suburbia.
The acting is astonishingly good. Spaceyís portrayal of a man in spiritual decline is near perfect, and itís his character that much of the audience will relate directly to, particularly when he starts to take control of his long-neglected life. Bening slots into the character of Carolyn so well itís as though sheís had first hand experience, while Thora Birch as daughter Jane does great things without saying much at all. The supporting cast are rock-solid - Suvari (best known for American Pie) perfectly captures Angelaís self-conscious seductiveness, Wes Bentley broods intelligently as Janeís boyfriend-next-door Ricky, and Rickyís parents (played by Chris Cooper and The West Wingís Allison Janney) portray such subtext in their relatively brief screen time that they could well have another movie to themselves.
Along with superlative acting comes an inspired, restrained original script (by Alan Ball), Sam Mendesí moving and poetic direction (this is the first film for this experienced British stage director), Thomas Newmanís score (an essential ingredient in this film) and best of all, the legendary Conrad Hallís jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography, which often speaks volumes when the characters donít, using light and shadow to full advantage - itís one of the finest examples of cinematography in years.
Considering the contrivances at work in its story, American Beauty is surprisingly unpretentious and insightful. If this is what happens when a studio leaves a filmmaking team to do their movie their own way, perhaps itís time the big studios adopt a hands-off approach as policy. Regardless, just remember: if five Oscars (for actor, director, screenplay and cinematography as well as Best Picture) hadnít come American Beautyís way, itíd still be one of the most essential American films of the past decade. With such wide recognition, though, maybe itíll prove an inspiration not only to other filmmakers, but to the studios as well.
Transferred to digital at its correct Super 35 aspect ratio of 2.35:1, American Beauty looks superb on DVD, with the exception of one scene - ironically, the opening helicopter shot over the suburb. This shot is marred by excessive MPEG problems that appear to be the result of an inadequate encoding bitrate for that segment - later similar shots look fine. Aside from that, the only problems visible throughout the film are some occasional cases of shimmer and aliasing on sharply defined edges - nothing terribly distracting, but a bit more careful attention could have solved this.
Making up for that is the film transfer itself, which captures Conrad Hallís refined photography perfectly, from the brightest of outdoor scenes to the most subtle of near-black night shots. Colours are rich but always natural and never overdone. A lot of time and effort has obviously gone into getting this from film to digital tape, and itís paid off - the visuals here are often as important than the actors and script, if not more so. Dreamworks are fast setting a standard for spectacular film-to-video transfers; a little more attention at the compression stage would see them rivalling Sonyís acclaimed hi-def transfers and resulting DVDs.
For the cinematography to have its intended effect, this film needs to be viewed in a completely darkened room.
While thereís a bit more tape hiss here than usual for such a recent film, the soundtrack of the main feature is of an extremely high standard - clear, well-defined and subtle in its imaging. Mastered at a noticeably lower level than most, it serves what is a very dialogue-heavy film well, springing into glorious hi-fi life every time Thomas Newmanís score comes into play (which is frequently!).
He 'rose' to the occasion...
Thereís simply nothing to complain about with this soundtrack, which is provided only in Dolby Digital 5.1, but which downmixes perfectly to Dolby Surround.
One oddity: the region 4 version of this disc contains a third audio track (after the main soundtrack and the commentary), which is completely silent throughout. Analysis reveals it to be flagged as a 48KHz Linear PCM track, but at a bit rate of precisely zero. This was most likely a mistake made during authoring, and doesnít affect disc performance at all.
While there isnít the feast of extras weíd have liked to see on the DVD of such an important and intriguing movie, whatís here is generally pretty good. One missed possibility that would have made an exciting bonus had it been included: a music-only audio track of Thomas Newmanís score. But then, Dreamworks have their own record label and soundtrack albums to sell...!
Audio Commentary (Director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball): While ostensibly a joint effort, this commentary largely features Mendes, who states a couple of times his fondness for listening to commentary tracks (he mentions those on Boogie Nights and Sex Lies And Videotape as favourites) and his belief that they really are an educational resource for aspiring filmmakers as well as those who live and breathe cinema. And what a resource this commentary is! Mendes is intelligent, funny, informative and enthusiastic about his film, his cast and crew (particularly Conrad Hall) and reveals fascinating bits of trivia and insight almost constantly. Ball chimes in with observations where necessary, but seems to be content to let Mendes do most of the talking. A breath of fresh air, this is one of the best DVD commentaries to date.
Look Closer - Behind The Scenes: A too-short look at the filmís production, very much in the film-studio EPK style and also intended for TV broadcast. While thereís a few fascinating moments here, itís really just an extended preview for the film, and as such utilises very long clips from the movie that give key plot points away - donít watch this before viewing the film itself. The film segments are presented full-frame, though, which does allow comparison with the matted 2.35:1 framing used for the widescreen version - always fascinating where Super 35 is involved. Ultimately, one keeps thinking what a pity it is that Mendes didnít keep a video diary like Paul Thomas Anderson did for Magnolia. Interestingly (and somewhat ironically), the interview clips of Steven Spielberg here are anamorphically squeezedÖ! This featurette was very obviously converted from an NTSC master.
Storyboard Presentation: Or, a film studentís dream. Over an hour long, this basically consists of side-by side comparisons between storyboards and actual film frames, with Sam Mendes and Conrad Hall elaborating on the audio track. While quite technical in places, this is still a very worthwhile watch, if only to hear the remarkable Hall offer his own insights into the shooting of the film, making up for his absence from the commentary track. Video quality here is sub-standard, with lots of shimmer; once again, this oneís from an NTSC master.
Theatrical Trailers: Two of these are included. The first (and shorter of the two) is terrible - a movie marketing mogulís spin-doctoring of what he probably saw as a tough sell. The second trailer captures the spirit of the film far better, but gives away key plot points in the process. Watch these after youíve seen the film.
Like many reading this page, this reviewer sees a lot of movies. And itís so, so rare to sit down to watch a two-hour film and completely forget the outside world - but American Beauty has precisely that effect. It explores, with confidence and cleverness, the prejudices caused by peer pressure, the regret and nostalgia caused by lost opportunity, the effect parentsí disillusionment can have on their kids and, above all, the fact that beauty is more than just physical. American Beauty is eloquent, elegiac and a host of other ďeĒ words. Itís superbly acted, beautifully photographed, stunningly written, directed with a sure hand and, above all, itís relevant. All the raves this picture scored upon its release undoubtedly made some people sceptical. But for once, hereís a film that lives up to the hype - no, transcends it. While it holds wide appeal thanks to its multi-layered story and innate accessibility, those who really get this film will never be quite the same again; itís a breath of fresh air that was badly needed in a stagnating Hollywood. To paraphrase an old Australian movie trailer: if you only buy two DVDs this year, make sure you buy this one. Twice.