Monday, September 20, 2010

AMERICAN BEAUTY: BLU-RAY (Dreamworks SKG 1999) Paramount Home Video

Academic interpretations on director Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999) abound; from heavy handed variations on the meaning of life theme turned rancid through materialism, to various exploitations of the vapid shallowness of suburban societyAs with all great artistic achievements, no single interpretation suffices. Rather, the film remains a multi-layered, multi-purposed exposé on the demise of the sacred and rise of the profane in American lifestyle. Neither is a dominant force for change however and that lack of immediate triumph or total collapse within Alan Ball's screenplay has caused many a critic to conclude that the film has no 'centre' but rather a multitude of voices all speaking at once on behalf of the plight of the middle class.

Whatever your interpretation of the story, there is little to deny the emotional power or entertainment value invested in the film; its astute narrative and superb cast really giving it their all. If American Beauty does have a central theme it is perhaps instructional - as ad campaigns of the day professed - for audiences to 'look closer' at their own lives and recollect their efforts to improve themselves by seeking personal salvation beyond the status quo.

As for the concreteness of the story at hand, it revolves around middle aged office grunt, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). Dissatisfied at work and metaphorically emasculated at home by his shrill wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) - herself on the verge of a nervous breakdown - Lester finds himself in an ever constricting, suffocating existence that threatens to destroy his sanity. But then he meets his daughter, Jane's (Thora Birch) Lolita-esque girlfriend, Angela Hayes (Mina Suvari). A contemptible teenage flirt, Angela professes a more worldly attitude than she actually has, prompting Jane to begin her web search for breast augmentation clinics.

At the same time, the Burnham's welcome a new neighbour to their block; retired Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), his wife, Barbara (Allison Janney) and their quirky teenage son, Ricky (Wes Bentley). On the surface, the Fitts appear as a very average suburban family. The smoke and mirrors of it is that behind closed doors, beneath his iron-fisted tyranny, Frank is a closeted homosexual; Barbara - an emotionally isolated and affectionately starved drudge and Ricky, a slightly disturbed drug dealer who finances his Peeping Tom-ism through high tech surveillance equipment he uses to spy on his neighbours.

When Lester's company hires an efficiency expert to help downsize staff, Lester reaches his breaking point. Instead of going mad, he cynically decides to blackmail his boss for a payout of $60,000. Meanwhile, Carolyn - a not so successful realtor - improves her prospects at work by having an affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher); the self professed 'king' of realtors.

On the home front, Lester and Carolyn's relationship continues to crumble. Yet their demise is not so much crippling as it results in Lester liberation from what he perceives are the shackles of married life. Free to do as he chooses, Lester reverts to the mantra of a free spirited teenager; buying the sports car he always wanted, 'vegging' at home, smoking premium marijuana supplied to him by Ricky on a regular basis and working out in his garage.

Of course, in totem these activities add up to a male mid-life crisis with the object of Lester's infatuation increasingly becoming Angela. Meanwhile, Jane and Ricky begin to relate to one another on a platonic romantic level; their Gen-X angst teeming with co-dependence that can only end in romantic tragedy. Thankfully - and cleverly - Ball's script doesn't go there, choosing instead to focus on an ever coiling series of mishaps that draw Col. Fitts into believing that his son is a homosexual.

The film's last act is an exhilarating slalom to hell as Carolyn - having been discovered in her affair with Buddy by Lester - plans to murder her husband on the evening that Ricky and Jane have already decided to run away and elope. Angela, who has provoked Lester with prospects for a sexual rendezvous nervously confesses that she is still a virgin when it looks as though he just might take advantage of her offer. In this context, Lester no longer regards her as a sex object but as the child that she truly is.

Meanwhile, having beaten his son to a pulp for his own closeted homosexuality, Col. Fitts is emotionally destroyed by Ricky's lie/confession that he has been turning gay tricks to fund his expensive camera equipment. Realizing that his life is bound to Carolyn, Lester awakens from his mid-life crisis only to have Col. Fitts put a bullet in his head because he suspects that Lester was the object of Ricky's homo erotic affections. Yet, in those final moments, Lester has indeed found what he has been searching for since the film began and quite possibly his whole life: absolute contentment.

American Beauty stands as a call to action. What is so incredibly compelling about Mendes' masterpiece of self reflection is not so much the way these characters' lives intersect on a crossroads ultimately doomed to destruction, but how ably and poignantly the director has managed to capture a slice from this inevitable decline and fall from “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

What Mendes and the film seem to be saying is that, all we, 'the people' have to do, in order to form a more perfect union, is to take a step back from the fray…and then, as the film’s publicity fittingly suggests, “look closer.”

Paramount Home Video's Sapphire edition of American Beauty puts to shame the lacklustre Dreamworks DVD from eight years ago. With so much visual richness at hand, the Blu-Ray reissue is perfection itself, exhibiting rich, deep and vibrant colours married to a superb amount of fine detail and film grain that has been rendered as such. Contrast levels have been ideally realized. Blacks are dark and solid; whites, quite pristine. The film's most dominant colour is, of course, red and captured herein with such explosive power that it seems to burst forth with dimensionality from the screen.

The audio is a Tru-HD lossless remaster that is quite aggressive across all channels. The one disappointment herein is that there are NO new extra features added to this presentation. The hour long Storyboard Presentation by Ball and cinematographer Conrad Hall and the 20 minute featurette are direct imports from the DVD, but the film's two theatrical trailers have been remastered in HD. Bottom line: highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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