American Beauty (Sapphire Series)
Studio: Dreamworks Studios / Paramount Pictures
US Rating: Rated R for Strong Sexuality, Language, Violence, and Drug Content
Film Length: 122 Mins
Video: 1080P High Definition 16X9 - 1.85:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio, French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese
Release Date: August 31, 2010
Review Date: October 11, 2010
“Everything that was meant to happen does…eventually”
Sam Mendes divisive American Beauty is everything critics say that it is. Most were enamored by the dark script and terrific performances that Roger Ebert aptly described as “walk[ing] the line between parody and simple realism”, though some were aghast at what was deemed pretention, and what Salon.com writer Andrew O’Hehir described as “vivid in detail and overly obvious in symbolism, fueled by half-digested lumps of malice and wonder.”Both are correct, but American Beauty should be viewed through the prism of stated figurative imagery and stateless poetry of which it so clearly is derived.
American Beautyis a brilliantly realized dramatic and comedic commentary on the suburban façade, the flaws of family, and the dream run awry of men and women living in the cages of the suburban zoo. It is also prone to pretentious diversions and adjunct parody which serves to, in some ways, obscure an otherwise lyrical cinematic experience. It is neither a perfect exploration of suburbia’s tragedy, nor a symbolic hybrid of satire and soul, but rather a terrific and tainted film of competing precepts. In aggregate, however, American Beauty is a superb artistic construct awash with outstanding performances, visual excellence, and enticements to ‘look closer’.
The Film: 4 out of 5
Under the pretense of a perfect suburban life, Lester and Carolyn Burnham live a stagnant stalemate of an existence. They go through the motions of marriage, sitting next to each other in the stands of a college basketball game watching their daughter Janie cheerlead, or across from each other at the dimly lit dinner table, but never actually connect. It is the pale of their existence, and within this dark suburban world, beneath the painted veil of perfection and happiness, toil the imperfections of all the people who live there.
Lester (Kevin Spacey) experiences an internal uprising; a cathartic revelation of his soul when he sees his daughter’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), for the first time. Inappropriately awakened within him is an infatuation for this young girl and his awkward teenage demeanor around this girl betray his weakness. He is a middle-aged man fantasizing and dreaming about the puckish and seductive friend of his daughter, and the girl who is the object of his fantasy, is fully aware. His daughter is disgusted, but Angela is affirmed by it.
Lester’s transfiguration from life’s punching bag to a man striving to own his moments is an unfolding contradiction. His embrace of life is bold and empowering, but it is simultaneously the source of his – and his worlds – destruction. And we watch in awe at the absurdity, power, and dark nature of at all. It isn’t a mid-life crisis we witness, but a mid-life implosion. When Lester, facing layoff from his disappointing, unfulfilling job in advertising, finds himself blackmailing his boss for a year’s salary with benefits, his shedding of the feeble Lester is complete. He takes a job flipping burgers as he pursues the simplicity of it (harkening back to his ideal stage in life flipping burgers and getting laid, as he puts it). He purchases a hot-red classic car, begins to work out, and buys weed. He treads the path of the typical mid-life crisis.
Meanwhile, his success-obsessed wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) – a Realtor by trade – begins an affair with the self-proclaimed king of real estate; a chisel jawed, salt-and-pepper haired man more attuned to her perspective on what happiness is (success). The Burnham’s daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), begins a relationship with the odd, pot-dealing neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley), who recently moved. His father is a strict, emotionally sterile and rampantly homophobic ex-marine (Chris Cooper) and a disconnected, isolated mother (Allison Janney). The wheels of turmoil are in full motion though none seem aware of it. Each are isolated from the person or conversation that would begin to reveal honesty in their lives, with the exception of Jane and Ricky, who seem keenly aware of the destructive suburban prison they inhabit, but still are unable to connect with anyone beyond each other.
American Beautyis filled with seemingly ‘normal’ people with what appears to be irredeemable qualities that, despite their flaws, are not unlikeable or at fault. They are imprisoned by both a lack of courage and the weaknesses of their paths in life. The perversion of an older man salivating over a high-school cheerleader, a self-centered, oblivious, façade-obsessed mother unable to confront the reality around her, the socially awkward, repressed neighborhood boy creepily acting is voyeur, the overly strict, angry and distant ex-military father – each easily faulted on the surface, but each damaged and demanding of some level of empathy the closer that we look. They are the result of complex lives, shaped by the complex people around them, distorting and garbling their emotions, reactions, perceptions, and actions.
Thomas Newman’s trademark melancholic score is never more suited to irony and seriousness than it is in this film. Often playing counterpoint to the destructive acts on screen, he provides deceptively tragic music embedded within themes and instruments that immediately signal something entirely more lighthearted. Mendes directs with precision, layering throughout his framing signals of characters inner peril and their hope and hopelessness, with the deeply experienced hand of the late Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall guiding much of what succeeds on screen.
Each character is superbly written, though the unusual Ricky character, portrayed ably by Wes Bentley, is perhaps the one character prone to indulgence. Kevin Spacy earns his Academy Award with aplomb, and despite many nominations, Annette Bening's lack of wins for her performance of the enjoyable but equally tragic Carolyn is a shame.
The Video: 3.5 out of 5
Paramount Pictures brings American Beauty to blu-ray in 1080p High Definition, preserving the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 as part of their Sapphire Collection. Debate exists regarding the quality of the image. Has it been unduly tampered with? Are we seeing the closest representation of the filmmaker’s intent in this high definition format? The news is both good and not so good.
Those familiar with the DVD release from several years ago – which itself was rather good – will marvel at the increase in detail, clarity, color, and definition. There are sequences in the film which look near-perfect, including close-ups of Kevin Spacey, the rich-red colors of roses and rose petals that are a staple of the experience, and superb clarity in the color palettes which inhabit many locations. The sterile whites of Ricky’s video tape filled room, the bold colors adorning Jane’s room, and the mostly mixed colors of the Burnham’s décor, are reproduced superbly by this high definition release.
Filmed in 35mm, the image quality of this blu-ray release retains the proper texture of how 35mm film looks, and DNR is not an issue. The complaints regarding the image come mainly from a perceived use of image sharpening tools, such as edge enhancement. While it does not appear that edge enhancement is the issue here, the film does appear sharper and brighter than I recall. Edge enhancement was a complaint levied against the DVD release, and those there were some apparent instances of that process, the same appears not to be the case for this blu-ray edition.
Cinematographer Conrad Hall was never afraid to use deep and bold shadows in scenes, nor was he afraid of the power of brighter sources of light or the targeted use of lighting on key elements within a frame. While much if his use of shadows cast across scenes – walls in the background and actor’s faces – are still clear, they are not as pronounced, especially when compared to the DVD version. In the scene where Annette Bening’s character breaks down after the day of showing a home she wants to sell, the DVD version can be seen to have a deep shadow nearly dominate her face, but the blu-ray is entirely less pronounced. I have tried to find as much detail as possible about the original visual intent of the film with limited success, and so I mention this detail merely as potential caution.
There are times when the image from this blu-ray edition is stunning and times when I wonder ‘is that how this particular scene is intended to look?’ The cinematography is spectacular – as it often is with Conrad L. Hall, and coupled with Mendes innovation and boldness as director, creates quite the visual treat, and the positives of this image do far outweigh the questions that I have.
Note: The 3.5 awarded the image in this review is dictated by the questions that remain regarding the use of sharpening and the occassional specs of debris noticeable, particulalry in the opening scenes, though without just a few scenes where this question arises, the image is gorgeous and would easily earn a 4.
The Sound: 4 out of 5
Paramount Pictures delivers American Beauty with an English 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio (along with French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 track). Undoubtedly, the core strength of the audio is the presentation of Thomas Newman’s score. The bells and melancholy – with themes driven with strings and a marimba and xylophone rhythm – are reproduced near-flawlessly throughout, and coupled with Spacey’s knowing and ethereal narration coming from the center channel, deliver more from the audio than this ‘dramedy’ may at first suggest. The audio isn’t reference for your friends nor is it bold and ambitious; it is simply expert at delivering the ambience of the score and the issue-free sounds of dialogue upon which this film’s sound relies.
The Extras: 4 out of 5
Audio Commentary by Director Sam Mendes and Screenwriter Alan Ball: Detailed and revealing, the commentary provided by Director Sam Mendes, and accompanied by a less vocal Alan Ball, is a superb listen, replete with insight to the process of creating shots, the inspiration of the actors, determining the tone and appropriately alternating pace of sequences, and the decisions – often tough – to excise certain shots. Of particular note is the revelation of how different the film would have been if either of the alternate opening sequences had remained in the picture.
Look Closer(21:52): A relatively superficial look at the response to the film, with insight from screenwriter Alan Ball who described originally conceiving if the story as a play. The producers discuss choosing Sam Mendes, the selection of the principle actors, and more.
Storyboard Presentation with Sam Mendes and Conrad L. Hall(101:20): The director and the cinematography discuss the creative process of moving from the storyboard to the screen; choices made to imbue the image on screen with deeper meaning, connection to the characters, and relevance to the story. This is an absolutely fascinating hour as these two consummate artists deconstruct scenes and how they augmented, deviated, and explored the original conceptual drawings.
Theatrical Trailers (HD): Two theatrical trailers from the film, both superbly done.
American Beautyis about things not being as they appear. The tag line during its theatrical marketing was ‘look closer’, indicating that what seems to be, is not, what seems not to be, is perhaps entirely so. The masterful exploration of characters in pain and the tragic trajectory of these lives in search of meaning and happiness is a richly rewarding experience. Each character in this film is tragic in their own way – from their own doing or from their circumstance – or in most cases both. Take the most innocent of characters in the film, Jane. Her reaction to the voyeuristic and creepy neighbor, Ricky, seems unusual on the surface, but the circumstances of her life reveal reasons. While most would expect his act of videotaping her and staring blankly at her when they first meet to conjure rejection of him, but she doesn’t, she accepts him (despite her initial protestations of his perversion). She feels invisible in her life where her home is cold and disintegrating. His notice of her supplies something she lacks, and she becomes as intrigued by him and he is of her.
The closing moments of the film are filled with characters finding what they had sought throughout the film, and those who seem incapable of finding it. The resulting tragedy comes not just from a failure to find peace, but from the failure of characters to find peace in time to change what happens at the very end. American Beauty in many ways is an exercise in fantastical existentialism channeled through the unraveling of a life and its impact on those around it. That impact is not passive, but a participant that eventually – and tragically – becomes a driver of events and that is what makes American Beauty fascinating.
Overall 4 out of 5