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review added: 10/4/00



American Beauty
The Awards Edition - 1999 (2000) - DreamWorks SKG

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

American Beauty: The Awards Edition Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A-/A

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A+

Specs and Features

122 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch 1:13:22, at the start of chapter 19), Amaray keep case packaging, documentary American Beauty: Look Closer, commentary (with director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball), storyboard presentation (with commentary by Mendes and director of photography Conrad L. Hall), two theatrical trailers, cast and crew bios, production notes, DVD-ROM material (including screenplay, storyboards and promotional material), animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (28 chapters), languages (English DD 5.1, 2.0 and DTS 5.1), subtitles: English

"I rule!"

Any good film - any classic film - has to have many levels in order to survive the test of time. We're not talking box office records, big name stars or any of that stuff that we think we enjoy. There has to be some sort of meaning behind the film. American Beauty stirs quite a bit of palpable emotion. But more than that, it means so much more than it's really showing. Beauty can be simply viewed as a film about a man coming to grips with middle age. It can also be seen as an allegory of our screwed up American lifestyle. Or it can be viewed as a whispered image of what life truly means. The real question in the film, is what is the beauty discussed in its title? Is it the beauty of a rose grown from crushed egg shells, animal waste and fishheads? Is it the beauty in the face of a teenaged cheerleader, that's lying to herself and the world about who she really is? Is it the beauty you see next to you each morning, etched in your partner's face as he/she dreams of a better life for themselves (away from you)? Like it or not, there is beauty in all of those things. And, like it or not, these things are very common in each of our everyday lives.

American Beauty is about... (now, hold right here for a second, because whatever I say American Beauty is about, it's not EXACTLY true. American Beauty is a complicated film, and based on the supplements on this disc, I don't think even the people who made the film know exactly what this film is about). On the surface, the film focuses on Lester (Kevin Spacey) a man sorting through all the mistakes of his youth. He's in a job he hates, a marriage that's gone stale and a family life that's spiteful more than anything else. In a momentary lapse of reason, he throws all of it away... and he's happy about it. He works off his middle-aged paunch, trades in the SUV for the car of his dreams, gets a job at the local burger joint and grows a crush on one of his daughter's girlfriends. But that's all just in the beginning and that synopsis sits as the emotional center of the film. Other important subplots involve the new neighbors: a strict military man, his somnambulistic wife and his voyeuristic son. Many things spiral out from that, and part of the beauty of the film itself is watching it unfold like a rose in the sunlight.

American Beauty was last year's Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, and I think it deserved the honor. I could go into all the different theories of what the film means, how it affects our lives and crap like that, but you know what? It doesn't matter. Whatever I say won't nail the movie for you. Actually, there's a moment in this film that may universally define exactly what the film might be about. Ricky (the voyeuristic son) videotapes a plastic bag trapped in a gust of wind. The bag gently dances around without any defined destination. Is it trapped? Is it suffering? Is it moving all by itself? That, my dear reader, is life - right there. We're that bag and life is the wind moving us. And depending on our position, construction and ability, we each move in all sorts of different ways. The film isn't about Lester. The film isn't about his life. The film is about all of us, as human beings, doing our dance and living our lives. It's about taking things for granted. That's what I think the film is about, anyway. But you may walk away with something different... and that's why this is a modern classic and a Best Picture.

American Beauty arrives as DreamWorks' first "Awards Edition" DVD. I guess DreamWorks is gearing up for many more Oscar-winning films - why else trumpet this as an Awards Edition? Justifiably, American Beauty comes to us with quite a few extras on disc. Some are really sweet and others hang a big question mark over our heads. But before we discuss the extras, let's talk disc quality. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and, for the most part, it looks really nice. The colors are rich, accurate and bright, and the blacks, although showing a bit too much grain, are solid enough. The subtleties of lighting in this film are wonderfully rendered. The only slight problem with the picture quality is the softness of the picture overall. This is could be due to the fact that there's about an hour and a half of watchable extras here, and four audio tracks (including notorious bit hog DTS). It's always nice to see the studios take an effort to give us everything on one disc, but sometimes less is more, and this is a disc that should have had a separate DTS disc for those with a real desire and need for it. Then again, the DTS track does sound incredibly rich and expansive. It enriches the film watching experience a little more than the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track does. Not that the Dolby track is shabby - it's pretty great on its own. Both tracks sound damn good, and really present Thomas Newman's score wonderfully.

On the extras side, all my small complaints wash away. Sam Mendes went on record earlier this year saying that there wouldn't be any deleted scenes on this disc. That's his right as an artist, and as long as he acknowledges that there is footage and tells us outright we aren't getting it, I can live with it. So that's that. What he never told us was that he'd give us something else in return. Mendes participates very heavily on this disc and makes it that much more special. Along with an informative character-and-set-piece commentary with Mendes and writer Alan Ball, we're given a really special extra - an hour-long look at the storyboards with commentary featuring Mendes and director of photography Conrad L. Hall. This is utter magic. It's so incredible to listen to. They discuss lighting, camera set-ups, "happy" shots, "sad" shots, what they could have changed and the accidents that gave us some incredibly rendered scenes. If you could only have one extra on a disc, I'd have this on every disc out there. There's also two trailers for the film, production notes (that seem to be written by Mendes himself), cast and crew biographies and a throwaway documentary entitled American Beauty: Look Closer that redefines the term "fluff piece" and seems thrown together with footage of various quality. Thankfully, the other stuff is so good that I'm going to cut it slack. Also, for those with DVD-ROMs, there's some nifty content including more storyboards (sans commentary), a script-to-screen option and assorted promotional material. All in all, this is a very nice DVD edition for a great film.

Not everyone appreciates American Beauty for what it is, but I think everyone should at least give it a try. There's a lot of great stuff going on amid the frames of this film, from the writing and direction to the acting and even the lighting. It's just a really beautiful film and, even though the video is a bit soft, I think this is a great DVD. It's well worth owning for the storyboard piece alone. So give the film a chance on DVD. You might just see a little of yourself in Lester. And if you don't, you're either a very lucky person... or you're not looking hard enough.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com




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