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Sam Mendes
Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Chris Cooper, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards
Alan Ball

...look closer.
Box Office:
Budget $15 million. Opening weekend $861 thousand on 16 screens. Domestic gross $ 130.058 million.
Rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
English Dolby Surround 2.0
English; Closed-captioned

Runtime: 122 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 10/24/2000

• Audio Commentary from Director Sam Mendes and Writer Alan Ball
• 23-minute featurette "American Beauty: Look Closer"
• 61-minute Storyboard Presentation with Sam Mendes and Director of Photographer Conrad L. Hall
• Two Trailers
• Production Notes
• Cast and Crew Biographies
• DVD-ROM Materials

The Shooting Script
Music soundtrack
Score soundtrack

Search Products:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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American Beauty (1999)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Logically, I should have greeted the acclaim accorded American Beauty with glee, especially when Oscar time came. After all, few more than I have bemoaned the Academy's stodgy and unadventurous choices over the years, and for something as distinctive and quirky as AB to win so many prizes seemed like I should have regarded it as tremendously positive.

And yet I didn't feel such joy, simply because I don't think AB is all that great a movie. For certain, I'm pleased that a film such as this garnered so much praise. Too many Best Picture winners have been the safe choices and it's nice to see something with so many risqué elements get such positive attention.

Nonetheless, after two viewings of AB, I remain slightly mystified as to why it received so much praise. To be sure, it's a solid movie, but I still don't think it lives up to all its critical hype.

When I first saw AB, it was relatively new but I'd heard all of the raves from critics so my expectations were high. At that showing, I definitely thought it was interesting but it didn't dazzle or engross me as the critics had said it would. The movie seemed well-executed and mildly provocative but it wasn't something that stayed with me for much time after the screening ended.

Since expectations strongly affect my opinions, I thought this may have been one of those cases in which my sights were set so high that nothing could have lived up to them. As such, I was curious to discover how I'd feel about AB upon my second viewing, which occurred when I got the DVD.

The results? About the same. I still like AB and recommend it, but I think it fails to measure up to the critical hype.

The positives: AB focuses on the lives of some fairly ordinary citizens and does so in a convincing and realistic manner. We find Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a schlub who's been beaten down by life and wife for many years; he's living a drab, joyless existence. His wife Caroline (Annette Bening) maintains an artificially perky existence through which artifice means all; she's clearly just as unhappy as Lester but is unwilling to recognize this.

Stuck in the middle is teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). She's going through the usual teen angst, exacerbated by her parents' issues. Her aspiring model friend Angela (Mena Suvari) makes certain she knows how ordinary and bland Jane's day-to-day existence is.

Things start to change because of two separate events, both of which reconnect Lester with his inner teen. First, the Fitts family moves in next door to the Burnhams. There's hard-ass Colonel Frank (Chris Cooper), his disconnected wife Barbara (Allison Janney), and free-spirit son Ricky (Wes Bentley). The latter Fitts has the most direct influence on Lester as his "damn what people think" attitude reminds Lester of what it was like to be young, free and have your whole life ahead of you.

The second influencing factor occurs when Lester sees Angela during a high school basketball game. To say that Lester's smitten is an understatement, and he quickly reconnects with the thoughts of a sex life, something that had remained dormant through many years of his lifeless marriage.

From there, the sparks start to fly. Lester's attitude toward life changes, Jane and Ricky connect, and Caroline tries to deal with all of this. The whole point of AB seems to relate to cherishing life and all the small but wonderful moments that happen while they happen and live each day fully, and the movie transmits these ideas effectively. This is a film that will make you appreciate things better and director Sam Mendes nicely illustrates all of the little wonders that we normally miss because we're so submerged in the stupidity that somehow becomes important to most of us, such as losing the passion of a moment because of fears that a couch might get a tiny stain.

The film concludes with a montage of these small but memorable moments that is possibly the best part of the movie. Although our own special memories will obviously be different, the scene connects us with the sentiment of the moments and is quite touching. The segment risks becoming overly sentimental but stays on the side of positively evocative emotions.

The cast is uniformly excellent, starting with yet another terrific turn from Spacey. I rarely recall the first time I saw an actor, but Spacey's debut (to me) in 1992's Consenting Adults stands out clearly; I didn't know who this guy was but he made a strong impression, and he's continued to do so in most of his films since that time. As Lester, Spacey fully captures the many dimensions of the character and renders them all fully, from Lester's wimpy qualities at the start to his growing joy when he starts to assert himself to the gentle peace with which he regards his fate. It's not Spacey's best performance, but it's terrific nonetheless.

My thoughts about Bening's work are a little less clear, though some of this relates to the fact she has the less well-drawn and realistic character. At times Caroline comes across as too broad and cartoony, and it can be hard to see her as a real person. Despite that, I thought Bening was solid, and she helps make the role more human than it probably should have been.

As for the negatives, I had some problems with a few casting choices. For one, I found Bentley and Birch too attractive for their roles. Actually, my main gripe is with Bentley, for Birch's beauty probably makes sense. Jane thinks that she's unattractive though she's not, which offers an apt depiction of the negative body image suffered by many folks; geez, she even convinces herself she needs breast augmentation although she's really pretty stacked.

I still think Jane should have been a bit less attractive, but this issue doesn't have as large an impact on the film as does Bentley's looks. Ricky is considered a weirdo and a freak by the high school community, and while a handsome guy can still be viewed that way, it made it more difficult to believe, especially since we only hear the viewpoints of teen girls. It'd be easier to take if some boys denigrated him, but since it's all girls, I found that less believable. C'mon, these girls have to respond to his handsomeness to some degree, but we never see that; even when Jane starts to warm up to him, it's for completely emotional reasons and his appearance never becomes a factor.

One aspect of AB that seemed very contrived stemmed from its attempts to be a murder mystery. It's not a spoiler for me to mention that Lester dies at the conclusion of the film; we learn this less than five minutes into it. However, the identity of his assassin remains unclear until the very ending, and this fact is played up heavily throughout the picture. The number of red herrings and false leads was astounding and the movie tries hard to play with our heads.

I thought all of that backfired to a degree, as it made the film depart from its mission. At times AB felt like one of those "Who shot JR?" episodes of Dallas as it developed various threads, and this was distracting and superfluous. The movie had enough going for it anyway; we didn't need a silly "whodunit" tossed in for artificial tension.

Despite some flaws, I found American Beauty to provide an engaging and fairly thought-provoking experience. The best film of 1999? Nope - I'd take movies like Fight Club, Three Kings or Being John Malkovich over AB in a heartbeat. However, I still like AB and think it definitely merits a look.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio B+ (DTS), B- (Dolby Digital) / Bonus B+

American Beauty appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall the picture looked pretty good but I found it mildly disappointing.

Sharpness caused some problems. For the most part, the image seemed acceptably clear and well-defined, but a moderate amount of softness and murkiness interfered with a number of shots. These concerns were mostly prevalent during some low-light or wider scenes. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented small issues, and I saw moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws were minor but surprisingly heavy for a major studio movie from 1999; at times I witnessed light grain and some black grit, and while these were never more than small nuisances, they seemed excessive for this recent a film.

Colors were a strong point of American Beauty. They appeared consistently true and correct, with some especially rich and vibrant reds at the forefront; that was especially important here since roses play such a key role in the film. Black levels seemed reasonably dark and deep but could appear slightly bland at times, and shadow detail occasionally was slightly murky and drab; these low-light situations generally seemed clear and accurate, but the lack of great depth to the dark tones offered some minor concerns. Ultimately, American Beauty presented an acceptable image but not one that I thought looked exceptionally good.

On this DVD, we find two separate soundtracks. We get both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. Personally, I dread having to contrast and compare the two, because it's almost a no-win situation. The various camps have become so antagonistic, and the whole issue has been so heated, that any impressions I or others may provide are inflated to exaggerated importance and meaning.

In general, I've found DD and DTS mixes to seem fairly similar, though the DTS tracks usually get a slight nod. The only occasions I can recall in which I felt there was a genuinely significant difference between the two occurred for two Spielberg films: Jaws and Saving Private Ryan. (In the latter case, my letter grade was an "A+" for both, but I still thought the DTS track was substantially better than the DD one; because of the rating system we use, there was no way I could reflect that in my grade, unfortunately.)

Time to toss a little more fuel on the fire: I found the DTS mix of American Beauty to sound significantly cleaner and smoother than the DD track. Both offered fairly similar soundfields. Unsurprisingly, the audio used the forward channels for most of its information. These speakers showed nice breadth and spread the sound appropriately across the spectrum; they created a modest but effective and engaging forward presence. The surrounds generally provided moderate reinforcement for these front channels; they operated mainly as extensions of the forward soundstage and bolstered the mix adequately in that regard.

The differences between the two soundtracks stemmed from the quality of their audio. The DTS track featured significantly more crisp and detailed audio. Dialogue showed the largest differences. On the DTS side, I heard consistently clear and distinct speech that seemed warm and intelligible and displayed no signs of distortion. However, the DD dialogue came across as somewhat brittle and edgy at times; although it seemed listenable and clear, the speech sounded less natural.

Effects and music were reasonably similar on both tracks except when we discerned the low end. For both DD and DTS, effects sounded realistic and clean and lacked noticeable distortion, and the score was detailed and smooth. Highs were clear and bright on both tracks and lacked excessive treble or any signs of muddiness.

The bass was where the two differed the most. Although the Dolby mix displayed some fairly deep low end at times - mainly from the music - the bass appeared vague and muddled; it should have been more taut and distinct. The DTS track accomplished those goals as it seemed clean and solid at all times. This version lacked the tentative qualities I heard on the DD mix and it acquired additional depth and power. Ultimately, both soundtracks serve the movie adequately, but I found the DTS mix significantly preferable to the Dolby Digital edition.

DreamWorks are calling the DVD of American Beauty "The Awards Edition". Frankly, I'm not sure what that means, since there's no other version, and "The Awards Edition" doesn't explain much about the content, but I guess it's just another name for a special edition.

As such, we find a smattering of decent supplemental features on the DVD. First up in a running audio commentary from director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball. Actually, that's not really true, since Mendes strongly dominates the proceedings. Ball says nearly nothing during the track; he offered one or two semi-substantial remarks and also mutters words similar to "I loved that part" on occasion, but that's it - we hear nothing else from Ball.

As for Mendes, he provides a fairly decent commentary virtually on his own. He combines details about the production with his opinions of parts of the film and some interpretation of it. Probably the most useful are his statements about different ways the movie could have gone; from deleted scenes to alternative interpretations, he gives us a nice look at some unused possibilities. Mendes provides an above-average commentary but not one that I found tremendously engaging or informative.

The same goes for American Beauty: Look Closer, a 21-minute and 50-second featurette about the film. The program involves all the prominent cast and crew such as Mendes, Ball, Spacey, Bening, and others, and it offers a decent view of how the movie got made. We get the usual mix of interview snippets, film clips and behind the scenes footage, and it all adds up to a fairly promotional and mildly superficial but watchable program.

Storyboard Sequences provides a discussion of the use of this form of art during American Beauty. We hear a conversation between director Mendes and director of photography Conrad L. Hall. This 61-minute and five-second piece shows a storyboards on the left side of the screen and their filmed counterparts on the right. We usually see three boards at a time and get about 43 screens in all for a total of roughly 120 boards (some screens have fewer than three boards on them).

While these comparisons are interesting, it's the commentary from Hall and Mendes that makes this feature valuable. Many films use storyboards but we don't hear much about how the filmmakers work from them, so this discussion adds valuable information and does so in a genial and engaging manner. Since the two interact in a much more involving and compelling manner, it's too bad the screen-specific commentary didn't feature Hall with Mendes instead of Ball; maybe Hall was slated to appear but a typo resulted in Ball's inclusion.

A few other common DVD features appear as well. We get two theatrical trailers for AB plus Cast and Crew Biographies. In that area, we discover listings for 10 actors and for seven crew members, all of which include fairly ordinary and brief descriptions of the participants' careers.

Production Notes features additional text that provides a pretty decent overview of the making of AB. More interesting are some notes from Mendes that appear in the DVD's booklet; these show a somewhat more personal look at his thoughts about the film.

Finally, AB includes some DVD-ROM content. Most significant is "Script and Screen", a feature that allows you to watch the movie alongside the complete screenplay and storyboards. It puts the script on the right side of the screen, with the movie in the middle left, and storyboards (when available) on the bottom left. Oddly, on two different machines that I used, the movie itself appeared in the upper left corner and the box in which it should have been seen was blank. Despite this glitch, the feature worked pretty well and should be useful for anyone who wants to see the ways the story was transformed into a film.

The DVD-ROM area also includes a weblink for doesn't work. Click "Go Online!" and you're sent to here. Maybe it'll function eventually, but right now (October 8 2000), it's a dead link.

Although I still feel American Beauty is an overrated film, it clearly is unusual and entertaining. It's a fairly thought-provoking little affair that should stay with you for a while after it ends. The DVD provides decent but flawed picture plus very good DTS sound and adequate Dolby Digital audio. We also find some strong extras in this package. I don't know if American Beauty merits a purchase, but it definitely deserves a screening.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.824 Stars Number of Votes: 233
5 3:
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