American Beauty (1999)

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Released 7-Mar-2001

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Featurette-Behind-The-Scenes
Audio Commentary-Sam Mendes (Director) & Alan Ball (Writer)
Storyboard Comparisons
Theatrical Trailer-2
Booklet
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 1999
Running Time 116:38
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (54:56) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Sam Mendes
Studio
Distributor

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Kevin Spacey
Annette Bening
Thora Birch
Allison Janney
Peter Gallagher
Mena Suvari
Wes Bentley
Chris Cooper
Case Amaray-Opaque
RPI $39.95 Music Thomas Newman


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
Dutch
Swedish
Norwegian
Danish
Finnish
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is in a rut. He's forty-something and unhappy with his "normal" suburban life. His work is unrewarding and his boss is setting him up for a fall. His materialistic wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and he are only together out of habit and his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) hardly even speaks to him. Lester decides that he has had enough of the chains of suburban "normality" and begins to make drastic changes to his life in search of individuality and freedom. His first move is to confront his ambitious and conniving boss who he bribes into offering a severance package of about $60,000. Lester takes the money and leaves before he can be fired. Now empowered by his increasing freedom, Lester boldly announces that he has had enough and is "not going to take it anymore". Carolyn is appalled by his behaviour and Jane, suffering from the insecurities and confusions that late teenage life brings, treats him with contempt. Undaunted by the family response, Lester continues his pursuit of freedom and self-satisfaction. Lester's determination to live a free life is given new focus when he meets the flirtatious cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari) after both she and Jane have performed during a school Basketball game. Lester is completely smitten by Angela and is determined to "have her". He begins to work out in an attempt to make himself more attractive while he continues to develop his "no one can stand in my way" attitude.

    The selfish behaviour of Lester acts as a catalyst for both Carolyn and Jane and they too begin to pursue the things they perceive as important. Carolyn becomes even more obsessed with making herself appear important, happy and successful while Jane explores a relationship with the intense young man that lives next door. Carolyn's desires lead her into the arms of the sleazy and yet successful Real Estate Agent Buddy King (Peter Gallagher). Jane's relationship with Ricky (Wes Bentley) changes her outlook on life and she re-assesses her friendship with Angela. The selfish behaviour of each brings with it consequences...consequences that will effect not only the family but also their friends and neighbours.

    This film is more complex than implied by the above synopsis, but it is the sort of film that you must experience for yourselves and so I'll not reveal any more of the plot. I encourage you to watch this film as it is a wonderful example of thoughtful film-making. If you need convincing, this film won 5 Academy Awards and, at the time of writing, sits at number 8 on the Internet Movie Database top 250 with a rating of 8.8.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    This DVD contains a very good 2.35:1 (measured), 16x9 enhanced video transfer

    A pleasing level of detail is revealed by this transfer. For example the period 34:48-37:43 contains sections of footage that are very sharp and very detailed. Other fine examples of the sharpness and detail in this transfer can be seen at 04:01-04:06, 08:59-09:09, 18:40-19:15 and 27:13-27:32. I did find one short section in which Mena Suvari is not in sharp focus. It can be found at 26:18-26:58. This is not a problem with the transfer, it is a camera focus problem. The black level in this movie is spot-on and the level of detail in the darker scenes very good. The director and cinematographer have often darkened a set so that only the point of interest is revealed but this is a creative choice and not a fault with this transfer.

    The colours in this transfer are wonderful. In some scenes there isn't much colour at all and the look is almost monochromatic while in others there are many strong and vibrant colours on display that are beautifully balanced. At no point did the level of colour become overly saturated. See 02:07-03:53 and 36:20-37:42 for examples of the wonderful colours of this movie. A lot of comment has been made about the use of the rose throughout the film. You can find a good example of this splash of colour in an otherwise muted scene at 98:47-100:22. The reproduction of skin tones is also excellent in this transfer and this can be seen during the period 02:07-03:53.

    MPEG artefacts are present in this transfer and take the form of pixelization. The most obvious examples of this artefact can be found at 01:54-02:07 and 18:17-18:22. These examples are the most significant I could find and aren't at all distracting. Film grain can be seen but is quite fine and not bothersome. I've noted a couple of examples for you, both are scenes in which the sky is shown. See 01:12-01:15 and 108:27-108:37.

    Film-to-video artefacts can also be found in this transfer and take the form of aliasing and moiré effects. Aliasing is well-controlled and while present in many scenes, is minor. You can find examples of aliasing at 01:12-01:23 and 06:03-06:06. Moiré effects are also well-controlled but do occur in a few places. See 26:09-26:18 and 43:16-44:08 for examples.

    This print is fairly clean but film artefacts do occur throughout. They are mainly small white or black flecks plus the occasional fibre. I've noted three examples for you to look at. See 01:31-01:40, 02:07-02:18 and 10:11-10:14.

    This is an RSDL disc with the layer change occurring at 54:56. It is placed on a scene change just after Kevin Spacey finishes speaking a line. This is a noticeable layer change as there is an obvious pause but on my DVD player, the change is negotiated within a 1/4 of a second and due to its placement, is not particularly disruptive.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are two audio tracks present on this disc. Both are in English and both are Dolby Digital. The main track is a 5.1 channel mix encoded at 448 Kb/s and the second is a 2.0 surround mix encoded at 192 Kb/s. I listened to both tracks.

    This is a very good soundtrack but also a subtle one. Firstly, thank you Dreamworks for giving us another audio track encoded at the highest Dolby Digital bit rate. I think that this is an important factor in revealing the subtleties of this soundtrack.

    The audio sync is spot on in this film and dialogue is always clear. There is one short scene in which Kevin Spacey mumbles under his breath and at lower than reference levels I think that this would be hard to make out.

    The score is by Thomas Newman who has crafted a wonderfully subtle and yet involving score that beautifully supports the action. It is mixed into the surrounds as well as the front speakers and is so beautifully balanced that you find that you are often sitting in a bubble of soft and sophisticated sound. I've noted a couple of examples of this for you to listen to. They can be found at 08:50-09:54 and 59:29-62:16. Slightly more aggressive examples of the score can be heard at 10:19-11:51, 15:38-16:32, 18:20-19:14 and 35:00-35:58. This score does repeat the same few themes but they are so well-written that they don't become boring. There are also a number of older 60s and 70s songs played in a number of scenes. They are used to represent the differing moods and directions of Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey.

    The surrounds are used throughout the film mainly to open the soundstage. There is little in the way of split surround activity and when it does occur it is only across the front channels. Still, when used, these effects are appropriate. Examples of this can be heard at 11:07-11:12, 11:37-11:42,21:32-21:59 and 70:27-70:34. In other places all channels are used for ambient sounds such as insects, birds, crowds and so forth. Good examples can be found at 13:14-14:25 and 15:38-16:32. As this is a mainly dialogue driven film there are also many passages where there is little or no surround activity however, these are usually appropriate as the scenes take place in quiet rooms.

   The subwoofer is used to support the score and to put a floor on some of the ambient sounds. Its use is mainly subtle but there are sections, during some of Lester's fantasies, where it is very obvious but still appropriate. Examples of subwoofer use can be found at 01:57-04:13, 15:38-16:32, 21:32-21:59 and 35:00-35:58.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    There is a pleasing collections of extras on this disc.

Featurette - American Beauty: A look Closer... (22:01)

    This featurette is a made-for-television production which includes interview segments with members of the cast and crew cut together with sections from the film along with some behind-the-scenes footage. Some of the people interviewed are writer Alan Ball, Producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, director Sam Mendes, actors Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey and Steven Spielberg who is one of the co-founders of Dreamworks Pictures.

    Structure and content-wise it is similar to many of the "making-of" featurettes that find their way on to DVDs these days. It is too short and contains too little information of substance to be called very good but is interesting enough to watch once.

    As this was clearly made for television, the quality of this full-frame video transfer is fine. While by no means as sharp as the film itself, the image is still nicely defined and the colour palette accurate.

    The audio for this featurette is Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. It is always easy to understand and there are no pops, clicks or dropouts. There is one section which features an interview segment with Annette Bening in which the audio is slightly distorted. The amount of distortion is fairly minor and I doubt that anyone would find it distracting.

Audio Commentary - Sam Mendes (Director) and Alan Ball (Screenwriter)

    I thought that this commentary was great. Sam Mendes states early in the commentary that he listened to other DVD commentaries so that he could learn what to do. To me, his study has paid off as he speaks almost continually and seems genuinely happy to be doing it. Alan Ball, on the other hand, says very little and when he does speak he doesn't offer anything of substance. Luckily for us, Sam Mendes is a veritable fount of information. He talks about technical matters, the story, the symbology and what he thought the characters were feeling during various scenes. One of the best commentaries that I've listened to. Well worth a listen.

Storyboard Presentation - Sam Mendes (Director) and Conrad L. Hall ASC (Director of Photography) (61:25)

    This feature is very interesting particularly for students of film or anyone interested in how the director and cinematographer translate ideas for scenes into actual film footage.

    The screen is split in half vertically with story boards for a particular scene shown on the left and small images from the same point in the movie, on the right. Sam Mendes (Director) and Conrad L. Hall (Cinematographer) then talk about what is shown on the screen. For the first 10 minutes or so they spend much of the time telling each other how great they are but then settle down and actually address what is on the screen. I think that this is an interesting feature and something I'd like to see more of. It was perhaps a little too long but it is nevertheless an interesting insight into the world of film-making.

   The video is presented full-frame and suffers from what seems to be a cross between moiré effects and aliasing. The storyboards are the most effected by this with large portions strobing/flickering in an obvious and annoying way. Due to their small size, the images from the film are lacking in detail but are clear enough to see what is being discussed.

    The audio for this featurette is Dolby Digital 2.0 surround although only the centre channel is used as this is a dialogue only extra. Both men are easy to understand and there are no obvious faults with this audio track.

Original Theatrical Trailers

Trailer 1 (01:07)

     The video of this trailer is 16x9 enhanced and is presented with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The trailer is of very good quality marred only by some minor film artefacts and visible film grain.

    The audio of this trailer is Dolby Digital 5.1 and perfectly clear.

Trailer 2 (02:53)

    The video of this trailer appears to be identical to trailer 1 which makes it easy to watch.

   The audio of this trailer is again, the same as trailer 1.

Booklet

    This booklet contains a short essay by director Sam Mendes in which he talks about his reactions to reading the initial script and how impressed he was with the boldness of the story and the completeness of the writing. He also talks about how the film-making process shaped the final result and what a wonderfully artistic process it was for him. He closes by  stating how gratified he is that the symbology used in the film was so readily accepted and understood by the general audience. A good if short read.

    The back page of the booklet also lists the scene selections available from the menu.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 version of this disc contains some additional extras, the most interesting being the inclusion of a DTS audio track. I read two U.S reviews of this DVD and both were very pleased with the quality of the Region 1 disc. Of particular interest was the review of the DTS soundtrack by  Widescreen Review in which they claim that "The DTS edges out slightly for having a low end that is a touch fuller and for subtly better defined spatial imaging". Both reviews were pleased with the quality of the video transfer which has the same aspect ratio as our own and is also 16x9 enhanced.

   The Region 1 version of this disc misses out on:

    The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on:      The availability of a DTS audio transfer is certainly attractive as are the additional extras but one must balance these positives with the lower resolution and 3:2 pull-down artefacts that come with NTSC transfers. I'm going to call this a tie as the quality, price and availability of the local product is counterbalanced by the attraction of additional extras, in particular the DTS audio, in the Region 1 version.

Summary

     American Beauty is a great film filled with powerful imagery which is boosted by excellent acting, great music and strong direction. Whether or not it is the definitive view of the perils and corruptions of suburban America is not something I'm prepared to analyse. For me, this is simply a superb example of the craft of film-making and is a pleasure to watch.

    The video transfer is very good but it does have a number of minor artefacts that keep it from being of reference quality.

    The audio transfer is also very good but don't expect this disc to be a demonstration of surround use because you will be disappointed. It is however a beautifully executed sound track.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© John Richardson (read my bio)
Saturday, February 10, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDLoewe Xemix 5006DD, using RGB output
DisplayGrundig MW82-50/8. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationDenon AVR-2801
SpeakersMains and Rears: Tannoy Mercury M1. Centre: Tannoy Mercury MC. Subwoofer: Aaton SUB-120.

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Comments (Add)
3rd audio track - Anonymous
re: 3rd audio track is a isolated music score most probably - Loose Tongue
Black Bars, Top & Bottom - lordg (Biography Tag)
RE Black Bars, Top & Bottom - Stimpy (da, what's a bio Ren?)
RE Black Bars, Top & Bottom - lordg (Biography Tag)
RE Black Bars, Top & Bottom - Sam
Re: Black Bars, Top & Bottom - Neil
if 2.35:1 is proper..... - lordg (Biography Tag)
Re: if 2.35:1 is proper..... - Billycan