Monday, May 2, 2011

American Beauty: Kevin Spacey's finest role?

American Beauty (drama)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari

Paramount Pictures | 1999 | 122m | Rated R | Sep 21, 2010

MPEG-4 AVC | 1080p | 2.35:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French, Portuguese, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
English: Dolby Digital 2.0

English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish

Single 50GB Blu-ray disc, region free 

The Film 5/5

American Beauty won five Oscars: Actor in a leading role (Kevin Spacey), cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), best director (Sam Mendes), screenplay (Alan Ball) and best picture (Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks). It’s a weird tale told in an unusual way.

The film contains nudity, violence, bad language, drug use and smoking, so the R-rating is warranted.

We learn during the opening narration that our protagonist, Lester Burnham (Spacey), is going to die. The events leading up to his eventual death are funny, moving, sad and unpredictable. Burnham is a pathetic character entering a mid-life crisis and the film shows how his character changes, as well as the lives of the people around him. There is a significant amount of character development in this story. The choice to use Burnham as a narrator was inspired and adds to the feel of the story.

It’s not strictly a comedy, but it’s full of dark humor that is hard to predict. In short, it's the funniest kind of humor. If you found Fargo or any of Quentin Tarantino's films amusing, you’ll probably laugh at this too.

Burnham changes his life by becoming more assertive and ceasing to care what other people might think. This catalyst for this rebellion is a meeting with his new neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) who gets high with him before quitting his job on the spot.

One of the most important themes of the film is beauty, as you might guess from the title. What is beauty? How do different people define beauty? The contrast between how the characters view other people is startling in places. Some like what they are told to like and dress how they are told to dress. Others are true individuals and express themselves differently. It’s interesting to see. You might even find yourself changing your own opinion of what is beautiful as the events unfold.

Another theme is the dysfunctional family. The two main families – the Burnham’s and Fitts’ – couldn’t be more different. The one thing they do have in common is that they are living a lie and mostly playing the roles assigned to them by society. They gradually change throughout the movie and try to bring meaning to their lives. we all do this to some extent in our own lives. Why do you do what you do? What do you really want from life and why? Do you set goals in order to get there, or just let things happen? Burnham tries to make things happen.

I’m probably in the minority, but I consider this Spacey’s best role. American Beauty just makes my Top 10 of all time and it’s largely due to his performance. The supporting cast also does good work. His wife (Annette Bening) deals with Burnham’s change in her own way while their daughter (Thora Birch) ignores both parents and lives her own life. Chris Cooper has a small but important role as Mr. Fitts.

Mendes has taken a look beneath the surface of the American family. It seems that everyone has secrets and chooses to hide them from almost everybody else. The film has humor, sadness, an air of mystery and considerable tension, despite the revelation of Burnham's impending death in the opening narration.

Video Quality 3.5/5
The Sapphire Series is off to an inconsistent start. While Braveheart was given an exceptional transfer, Gladiator was not so lucky. There was also an audio problem on Saving Private Ryan. The good news is that Paramount offered a free upgrade to fix the problems. Unfortunately, many people will be disappointed with American Beauty on Blu-ray.

There’s no question that the picture quality is significantly better than that of the DVD. The problem is it’s inconsistent. The majority of the film is plagued by frequent white speckles on the image and occasional print damage. Detail is vastly improved, but the images still look a bit drab and subdued due to the source material. Colors look good throughout and red is boosted in some scenes as Mendes intended.

The few scenes involving Ricky’s camcorder look terrible. I know that it’s due to the source material, but the contrast between those scenes and the main movie is huge. 

Audio Quality 4.5/5
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is a big improvement. Ambient sounds such as rain falling are easy to pick out. Thomas Newman’s haunting score sounds impressive and adds to the overall mood of the film. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the louder scenes, such as Burnham rocking out while driving, have considerable punch. No complaints at all about the sound presentation.

Special Features 3/5
Commentary by Sam Mendes and Alan Ball
American Beauty Look Closer (21:52)
Storyboard with Sam Mendes and Conrad L. Hall (1:01:20)
Theatrical Trailers (3:00 and 1:22)

Similar Movies
American Beauty has a unique feel so it’s hard to suggest similar movies. Revolutionary Road, also directed by Mendes, is another movie exploring dysfunctional families and people living a lie. It’s not as good though and the characters don’t have the same appeal. Strangely enough, I’m also reminded of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. While it’s stop motion, the themes and quirkiness of the story are similar. And finally, check out Magnolia. It’s a sprawling study of several different characters and the threads are drawn together expertly by director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Overall, I was pleased with the presentation, but the white speckles were too frequent to be overlooked and were a distraction. I’m not sure whether that could be fixed without a full restoration. If you’re a fan of the film, buy the Blu-ray and enjoy the enhanced presentation, but temper expectations. There’s no guarantee we’ll ever see a better version.

Overall score 4.5/5 

See where American Beauty ranks in my Top 20 dramas.

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  1. American Beauty is a masterpiece in my opinion. I don't think the camcorder footage took anything away from the overall enjoyability. Oh well, to me it was flawless :)

    1. Hi Ben,

      I agree, it's just about perfect. It will probably always be in my Top 10. I only mentioned the picture quality because I know some Blu-ray fans are obsessive about such things.

      Thanks for the comment :)