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Lester Burnham's wife Carolyn, who's cheating on him, hates him, his daughter Jane regards him with contempt, and his boss is positioning him for the ax -- the typical suburban nightmare. When you've got nothing to lose, you might as well risk everything. Provoked by forbidden passions, Lester decides to make a few changes in his life that are less mid-life crisis than adolescence redux. The freer he gets, the happier he gets, which is even more maddening to wife and daughter alike. A pandora's box of fantasies as he begins lust after his daughter's over-developed friend. But Lester Burnham is about to learn that the ultimate freedom comes at the ultimate price.
For more about American Beauty and the American Beauty Blu-ray release, see American Beauty Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on September 13, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper
Director: Sam Mendes
» See full cast & crew
American Beauty Blu-ray Review
Beauty is truth, truth beauty.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, September 13, 2010
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Sam Mendes might be the best director in the world who's name doesn't normally pop up in conversations revolving around the topic of world's best director. Sure, he has an Oscar win under his belt for American Beauty, Jarhead may be one of the most unheralded War films ever made, and Road to Perdition is one of the best films of the 2000s, but he's not normally grouped in with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, or Quentin Tarantino. That needs to change, because his films are not only immaculately crafted, but they're also intellectually-stimulating and thematically complex. It might be too easy to call his Oscar-winning American Beauty "a thing of beauty," but that's exactly what it is. Sam Mendes' picture -- winner of five Oscars and the recipient of several additional nominations -- examines what it is that truly defines beauty in the world and laments the absence of real beauty in favor of the superficial, the routine, and the seemingly immutable lifestyles of today that have sacrificed beauty in the name of popularity, self-satisfaction, material possession, and closed-mindedness. Accentuated by Mendes' stunningly reserved but structurally superb direction, Conrad Hall's (Cool Hand Luke) faultless cinematography, Thomas Newman's (The Shawshank Redemption) sublime score, and several performances that get to the heart of the picture's very essence, American Beauty takes its audience on a journey of discovery and meditation on the state of the world as seen through the microcosm of the crumbling lives of several suburbanites and, yes, it's a thing of sheer beauty inside and out.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, Se7en) leads a typically dull suburban life. He's 42, he used to be happy but now lives in some odd and meaningless trance, and oh yes, he'll be dead within a year. He's married to Carolyn (Anette Bening, Mars Attacks!), a struggling real estate agent, and he's father to Jane (Thora Birch, Patriot Games), a teen who's saving up her nickels and dimes in hopes of one day buying her way to bigger and better breasts. Enter the Fitts, a family recently moved into the neighborhood, right next door to the Burnham's. Teenager Ricky (Wes Bentley, Ghost Rider) is seen as a weirdo around school; he videotapes anything and everything, paying for his vast collection of electronic equipment and blank videocassettes from cash he earns on the side as a drug dealer. His father, Frank (Chris Cooper, Seabiscuit), is a homophobic former Marine who's struggling to keep his son clean and honest. The Burnham's familial structure is already stressed to max, and it threatens to fall completely apart when Lester begins to fantasize about a sexual encounter with Jane's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari, Domino), Carolyn's eyes grow wide for the soon-to-be-divorced local real estate "King" (Peter Gallagher, Sex, Lies & Videotape), and Jane comes to learn that maybe Ricky isn't quite the oddball for which he's been mistaken. Can the family survive its perilous journey towards self-discovery, or will the well-established veneer built on the need for external beauty, acceptance, wealth, and self-assuredness completely destroy any beauty that remains -- though long-since buried -- on the inside?
A dead bird. The body of a recently-deceased homeless woman. A fluttering plastic bag. These are the things heralded in American Beauty as representing some of the most beautiful imagery in the world. Who's to argue? American Beauty pits two very different definitions of "beauty" one against another, the picture juxtaposing the flawed interpretation of "beauty" to mean only physical attraction, public prestige, wealth, and material goods against the definition that sees the natural state of things as the true definition of beauty in a world that seems wanting for something greater than the most basic and superficial of realities that seems to have taken hold and destroyed any appreciation for anything that exists beyond the vanity mirror or bank account. Certainly a dead body and a common plastic bag floating on a breeze won't match the most common definition of "beauty," but look closer, as the picture's tagline suggests: "beauty" may be defined as something that extends beyond physical limitations, as something that represents real peace, tranquility, or the natural order of things. In American Beauty, characters struggle to find the true beauty of their lives and instead focus on those things which can only enhance, but not define, truth and spiritual, emotional, and physical satisfaction. As the characters begin to find the "entire life behind things," they slowly piece together why their seemingly perfect magazine-cover lives aren't fulfilling them at a deeper level and why they're quickly unraveling at a superficial one. American Beauty basks in spiritual and psychological undertones that greatly enhance the meaning behind the story and accentuate the way Director Sam Mendes has so precisely crafted his picture.
Structurally, American Beauty looks and sounds marvelous and flows in perfect cadence with its underlying themes. The picture serves as an example of dark and complex themes structured around a bright visual scheme and lighter performances. Sam Mendes followed up American Beauty with Road to Perdition, an extraordinarily dark film noir that examines the bonds of family, the significance of devotion, and the physical and emotional pains of violence and justice, and through it all plays as a tale of self-discovery as seen through the eyes of Michael Sullivan, Jr. Likewise American Beauty is also a film of self-discovery, of redemption, and of understanding the differences between right and wrong and inner beauty and outer conformity -- this time as seen through the eyes of several lost characters -- but Mendes crafts the picture in a way that's the structural opposite of Road to Perdition while still finding the same thematic importance in defining both stories. Road to Perdition is an almost dishearteningly gloomy and rainy picture that sees its visually-brightest moments at picture's end when the lead characters come to either discover their true selves or learn that their fates will not be in vain. American Beauty paints its unwoven, uncertain, and in every way crumbling characters against an almost cheery, bright, and lively backdrop through much of the film. It's only when things get rainy, dark, and otherwise visually bleak do the characters begin to see their lives for what they are; find the faults in the way they've lived their lives; and come to terms with their own long-since buried selves, yearning to escape the superficialities that have come to define their existences. Mendes proves his worth as one of today's best filmmakers in the way he so magnificently paints both pictures as structural opposites but nevertheless captures many of the same ideas and themes in each.
Finally, American Beauty features a superb cast that's up to the challenge of working with; embracing; understanding; and putting on display through several Oscar-winning, nominated, and deserving performances the story's ideas and thematic significance. The entirety of the cast seems to embrace the idea of portraying a collection of highly "dysfunctional" but in many ways "normally self-absorbed" characters. Is this, and are they, truly representations of today's society? Who can really know for sure what plays out behind any given door on any given street in any typical suburban setting, but suffice it to say that the cast displays an uncanny ability to effortlessly make viewers believe that they're really the characters they play and that, yes, this is life of the most fundamentally flawed, personally-absorbed, ignorant-to-the-world, everyday type. Kevin Spacey dazzles as the family patriarch experiencing personal disillusionment brought about by his mundane job and "yes dear" existence inside the home. Spacey does an incredible job of portraying a character with no purpose and no future who emotionally reverts back to his days as a hormonal 15-year-old teenager who wants to score with the prettiest girl in school in the back of his shiny new Firebird. Anette Bening is marvelously annoying in a fingernails-on-chalkboard sort of way as a career woman and mother whose personal and occupational lives are slowly circling the drain, even as she tries desperately to hold herself, her home, and her job up to some phony standard she's created in her own mind, no doubt influenced by the "me first" world in which she lives. Chris Cooper, however, steals the show as the homophobic ex-military father-next-door with his own little secret that's sure to shock every viewer. Ultimately, American Beauty's entire cast seamlessly integrates into a collective whole that features different people of different ages and different stages of life all looking for the same thing: themselves.
American Beauty Blu-ray, Video Quality
Paramount's "Sapphire Series" presents Oscar-winning and nominated films on specialty Blu-ray releases, and it's off to a shaky start. The first pressing of Gladiator was marred by an unsightly transfer riddled with edge enhancement and digital noise reduction, while Saving Private Ryan's initial release left listeners in search of a soundtrack not hindered by an audio sync problem in the film's critical third act. The studio made good with both discs; the remastered Gladiator is a thing of high definition beauty, while a recall and second pressing of Saving Private Ryan elevated the release to the point where it's a contender for the year's top Blu-ray disc. Unfortunately, the fan-favorite and Oscar-winning American Beauty features another flawed transfer; it's not as egregiously bad as Gladiator's first release, but it's not up to par with the wonderfully filmic and nearly perfect Braveheart, either. It's a transfer of pluses and minuses that will leave some viewers satisfied and others once again demanding a superior release. As to the good first, American Beauty's vibrant color palette mostly sparkles in high definition. Though reds -- the most important color throughout the film -- can appear somewhat smeary and slightly over-pumped, the remainder of the palette delivers a stable, honest appearance that lends an eye-catching tint to brighter shades while maintaining a strong neutral look to the less-vibrant hues. Nevertheless, several scenes clearly appear washed out compared to the remainder of the film. Detailing is adequate for a high definition transfer, too; American Beauty certainly doesn't capture the absolute finest textures and nuances of anything within its frame like the finest film-like transfers achieve, but viewers will be pleased with the solid upgrade in clarity and definition that's apparent over the film's standard-definition DVD release.
Unfortunately, there are some other minor-to-moderate issues that drag the transfer down from where it needs to be. Occasional spots and speckles cover what is a rather harsh-looking image with excessively sharp edges and readily-visible edge enhancement through much of the film. Whites occasionally bloom and overpower the frame in several scenes, and black levels fluctuate between appearing a bit too pale in some places and overwhelming foreground details in others. Fortunately, however, both whites and blacks are more often than not steady and honest, with the problem areas appearing only intermittently throughout the film. Noise dots the image on occasion as well, though American Beauty does retain a bit of grain and doesn't appear to have suffered from overzealous noise reduction. Nevertheless, there are several instances where parts of the image -- and faces in particular -- appear overly smooth and pasty, though flesh tones tend to capture a pleasantly neutral shade through most of the runtime. Of the observed issues, only the overly sharp, digital-looking sheen and edge enhancement are major causes for concern; the other problems add up but don't dominate and drastically lessen the transfer in quite the same way.
Paramount has shown time and again that they know how to do Blu-ray right and as well as any other studio around. They don't get much better than the 1080p transfers found on discs like Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, War of the Worlds, and Road to Perdition, so viewers have every right to wonder why the "Sapphire Series" Blu-ray releases can't consistently capture that same level of excellence the first time through. American Beauty isn't a terrible high definition release by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not up to the same exacting standards of Paramount's other releases, either. The "Sapphire Series" monicker seems to suggest a release of higher standards and greater prestige; here's hoping that future titles in the series receive the same top-notch treatment found on the studio's plain old vanilla Blu-ray discs.
American Beauty Blu-ray, Audio Quality
American Beauty features a DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack that shouldn't disappoint most listeners, but the track fails to rise above the level of merely "good." Paramount's lossless mix is stable but sometimes underwhelming, delivering its bread-and-butter element -- dialogue -- smoothly and strongly enough from the center channel. Atmospherics are nicely implemented in several scenes but lack that last little bit of clarity that defines the best tracks. Hoots and hollers and various crowd noises are heard off to the sides while blending well into the rears during a cheerleading segment in chapter four. Lesser environmental ambience is generally played across the front speakers, though the track does manage some incredibly lifelike discrete sound effects, such as a ringing doorbell that's heard off to the side and is sure to fool all but the most discerning listeners into believing that they have company at the door. Several gunshots heard during a firing range scene pack a suitably strong wallop, though that more aggressive echoing sensation and low end accompaniment that may have made for a more realistic experience aren't implemented with the level of potency that may have elevated the scene another notch. Fortunately, the track does well in capturing the thematically-critical sensation of heavy, saturating rain falling all around the listening area during exterior scenes that in part make up the picture's final act, the effect all but drenching the listening area. Music enjoys a good bit of space along with strong clarity across the front in most scenes, whether several Classic Rock tunes or the cheesy elevator music that plays over several dinnertime scenes. All in all, Paramount's American Beauty lossless soundtrack surpasses the video presentation. It's better than serviceable while not quite achieving top-tier status.
American Beauty Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
American Beauty's Sapphire Series Blu-ray release features only a few extras. Headlining the collection is an audio commentary track with Director Sam Mendes and Screenwriter Alan Ball that's well-paced, quick to share pertinent information, heavy on discussions revolving around the movie's themes and corresponding visual style, packed with technical information, praising of the cast's performances, and home to a great deal of additional information. Mendes certainly dominates the track to the point that Ball oftentimes seems to completely vanish from the proceedings, but the director's enthusiasm for sharing his insights and so intricately dissecting the picture makes this commentary a wonderful companion to the American Beauty experience. 'American Beauty' Look Closer... (480p, 21:52) is a decent enough interview/behind-the-scenes/clips-from-the-film piece that examines the process of bringing the film to the screen. Topics include the ideas and themes behind the script, the challenge of finding a studio willing to back the script, the choice of Sam Mendes as director and the qualities be brought to the picture, the assemblage of the cast and the bond formed between them, the way the film captures the oddity of life, and the work of Cinematographer Conrad Hall and Composer Thomas Newman. Next is Storyboard Presentation With Sam Mendes and Director of Photography Conrad L. Hall (480p, 1:01:20), an extensive piece that features the filmmakers discussing the process of translating the hand-drawn storyboards into the final filmed image. The piece features storyboards juxtaposed with their corresponding filmed shot with the participants speaking over the images. Rounding out this assortment of extras are two American Beauty trailers (1080p, 3:00 & 1:22).
American Beauty Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Director Sam Mendes achieves with American Beauty an accomplishment that but a few filmmakers can boast. No, it's not just the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars adorning his mantle, but the way in which he has crafted a picture of such great thematic importance with both the respect the material deserves and craftsmanship that's second-to-none. Mendes' picture superficially examines sexual, personal, and psychological tensions in and around what might be described as a "typical" slice of suburbia, but he balances it all with an honest look beyond the superficial and an ending that, in the picture's own way, comes to define beauty as it's been hinted at throughout the story, even through the gloominess of a dark and unforgiving final setting. It's that contrast between light and dark and inner and outer beauty that seems so simple but is so effectively balanced, illustrated, and understood here that the picture was chosen as year's best and Mendes, most deservingly, as top director. If only Road to Perdition several years later had also earned him the same deserved accolades. American Beauty is in every way a masterpiece, but its Blu-ray release could use some work. Paramount's "Sapphire Series" once again delivers only a mediocre 1080p transfer, but the lossless soundtrack is of a sufficiently high quality. Unfortunately, the extras are a bit too few and far between, though the Mendes commentary is worth its weight in gold. American Beauty's Sapphire Series Blu-ray release comes recommended on the strength of the film alone.
American Beauty: Other Editions
American Beauty Blu-ray, News and Updates
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