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Real 'Beauty'

The best picture Oscar-winner finally gets a DVD release, and it's a splendid package indeed.

October 26, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although the 1999 Oscar-winning best film "American Beauty" has been available on videocassette for months, DreamWorks is just releasing the DVD of the dark, biting satire this week.

"The Awards Edition" ($27) is a well-crafted disc that benefits immeasurably from the intelligent, perceptive commentary of its Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes.

The disc features a crisp wide-screen transfer of the film, which stars Kevin Spacey in his Oscar-winning performance, Annette Bening and Thora Birch. There are also production notes, trailers and a typical "making of" featurette.

Skip the documentary and click onto the commentary provided by Mendes and Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. The two discuss Mendes' storyboards for the film and compare them to how Hall shot the scenes. Hall admits he usually doesn't work with storyboards but was highly impressed with Mendes' vision and look for the film.

One entertaining moment comes when Mendes praises Hall for the way he framed the scene in which Spacey is seen sitting in his boss' office. Hall cut off Spacey's feet in the frame, thus making his character seem inconsequential and frumpy. Hall pipes in that he didn't intellectualize the scene--he simply wanted to make certain a lamp got into the frame and that the only way he could accomplish that was to cut Spacey's feet.

Mendes and Oscar-winning screenwriter Alan Ball also provide commentary, but Ball rarely gets a word in. Mendes may be a bit too in love with his voice, but his take on the film is brilliant, whether he is discussing the two original openings for the film--one of which has Spacey flying over the city--or his use of jail-cell images to reflect the prison in which Spacey's character was living.

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The summer hit "The Patriot" (Columbia TriStar, $28) arrives on DVD and video shelves just four months after its release. The Revolutionary War epic from the filmmakers of "Godzilla" and "Independence Day" has been given a classy DVD treatment.

The disc features a nice wide-screen transfer of the action-drama starring Mel Gibson and Health Ledge. In fact, Caleb Deschanal's glorious cinematography looks even better on the DVD than it did in the theaters. There are cast and crew biographies and production notes, a look at the conceptual designs and a fun featurette illustrating how certain special effects were done digitally--including how a cannonball ripped off a soldier's head.

The disc also contains two above-average documentaries on the art of warfare during that time and on the filmmakers' attention to authenticity, from the production design to costumes to the weaponry.

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Also new this week is the digital edition of the acclaimed submarine thriller "U-571" (Universal, 27), starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton and Harvey Keitel. Included in the very watchable disc is a wide-screen version of the film, a documentary on how the production made a German U-boat from scratch and interviews with the cast and crew.

Writer-director Jonathan Mostow conducts compelling interviews with a former British navy officer who actually captured the German's Enigma code machine aboard a sinking U-boat in 1941 and a former American naval officer who began his career aboard a submarine during World War II and was a technical advisor on the film. There's also a documentary on the importance of the German Enigma code machine during World War II and a U.S. Navy Archives film, "Capturing the U-505."

Mostow is a terrific guide, explaining how he actually wrote "U-571" eight years before he filmed it. He was inspired by the great old submarine movies such as "Run Silent, Run Deep" and by touring a vintage World War II sub that docked in San Francisco. He points out several times that he didn't cast the film with young actors just to appeal to the youth audience; the crews of submarines during World War II were notoriously young--often the seamen were under 20 and their captains merely in their 20s.

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Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton made his promising directorial debut earlier this year with "Keeping the Faith" (Touchstone, $30), an offbeat romantic comedy about the friendship between a priest (Norton), a rabbi (Ben Stiller) and their beautiful childhood friend (Jenna Elfman). The digital edition isn't anything special. There's a gag reel, deleted footage with commentary from Norton and writer-producer Stuart Blumberg, cast and crew biographies and trailers.

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Did you know that David Letterman tested for the romantic lead of the 1980 hit comedy "Airplane!"? Or that Pete Rose was supposed to play the co-pilot, the role that eventually went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Those are just two of the juicy tidbits revealed in the highly watchable digital edition of "Airplane!" (Paramount, $30).

Besides a wide-screen version of this hysterical spoof of airplane movies, the disc includes the trailer and the side-splitting audio commentary from writer-directors David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, plus producer Jon Davidson.

With so many people talking on the track, it's hard to figure out who is who, but it doesn't really matter. They are all a hoot--pointing out their relatives in bit parts, laughing at all of their mistakes.

Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker actually got the idea for doing "Airplane!" while they were running the Kentucky Fried Theater in Los Angeles in the 1970s. They were constantly taping late-night TV to get inspiration for sketches spoofing cheesy infomercials. One of their tapes included not only commercials, but also "Zero Hour," a long-forgotten airplane disaster flick from the late 1950s that was ripe for parody.

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