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New Line Home Cinema presents
"I've seen all your movies, and when I was in rehab, for the second time, they wouldn't even let us watch your drug addict movie because they said you were too real."
DVD ReviewOne of my least favorite films is The Big Chill (shocked gasp), the influential, navel-gazing, generation-defining 1983 boomer dramedy from director Lawrence Kasdan. Something about it just struck me as frustratingly self-important; the inability of a group of middle-aged people, unwilling to give up their petty, youthful insecurities and get on with their lives, did not strike me significant motivation for a drama. Perhaps I'm too young for the material, with my life just beginning and all the promising parts ahead of me. Still it's then, if anything, a film I'm not ready to appreciate yet.
Oddly enough, though, I did quite like the similarly themed The Anniversary Party, from actor/directors Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Perhaps because of the excellent cast, perhaps because of the "inside" Hollywood feel, perhaps because of the biting, sarcastic humor, but whatever the reason, I really enjoyed this version of "Beautiful People Feeling Sorry for Themselves: The Movie."
Cumming and Leigh star as Joe (a popular novelist) and Sally (an aging actress), who are celebrating their sixth anniversary after a tumultuous year during which, for a period, they separated. They throw themselves a party, invite many friends, co-workers—even the annoying neighbors—for a night of fun that quickly disintegrates into reassessments of lives and startling, brutal, truthful conversations. Yes, as the oh-so-subtle tagline reads, it's not a party until something is broken, be it a marriage or a friendship.
The script feels one step removed from reality, as each character plays a role closely linked to their real life persona (or at least, to public perception of said). Cumming's character's past is full of sexual ambiguity; just as Cumming's real-life sexuality is often questioned. Leigh plays a woman struggling with a waning career and the decision to forgo acting for motherhood, and while in real life she's clearly on top of the acting game, the pain in her characterization is evident and realistic. The vast supporting cast, full of some of my favorite actors, is likewise based on fact: Phoebe Cates, Leigh's real-life friend, plays naturally as such in the movie. Kevin Kline plays a pompous, self-important, "respected" actor. Perhaps most memorable is Gwyneth Paltrow's self-skewering turn as a young Hollywood starlet, both innocent and manipulative.
In The Big Chill, the revelations really start to come once all the characters get drunk. This is the new century, so the catalyst this time is Ecstasy. Up until the midway point, this is more a black comedy than anything else, but the influx of the drug amps up the drama. The directors do an excellent job communicating the "feel" of being high quite well; if they didn't the latter half would seem quite goofy and overdone. Truth be told, if you don't buy the tonal shift and roll with it, likely the latter half will not feel like the same film. But it worked for me.
Though captured on digital video, The Anniversary Party is shot, by cinematographer John Bailey, like a traditional film, without the heavy use of handheld that makes the Dogma-style of shooting a love-it-or-hate-it affair. The characteristic DV look actually works quite well, capturing the spontaneity of the performances and giving the picture a close, intimate, almost documentary feel.
Though the script does go a bit astray in the latter portion, teetering on the edge of melodrama, Cumming and Leigh do a good job of keeping things under control. If nothing else, they can write good dialogue, and The Anniversary Party certainly kept me laughing.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The image quality here is about as good as you can expect from a digital video production, but it still exhibits many of the flaws inherent to the format. That being said, this is probably the cleanest digital transfer I've yet seen—it looks much better than the often dirty, grainy images in Dancer in the Dark. Sharpness is generally very good, and the picture shows a good amount of fine detail. Print flaws weren't a problem, nor did I notice any film grain or artifacting. Colors look natural for the most part, but DV does something odd to the image, giving it an off-balance, somewhat overexposed look that actually works quite well for the film. I can see a hint of what looks like the silver-nitrate techniques used in Se7en. Overall, a pleasing image, considering the source materials.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: A very reserved, but well presented, 5.1 mix. Even more than many other dialogue-based films, The Anniversary Party relys almost solely on speech to carry its sound mix. Dialogue is anchored in the center channel, and sounds consistent and clean throughout, with no apparent ADR. The soundstage opens up a bit with the use of music (especially in the latter half), but the surrounds never come into play. I really can't fault this mix, it does exactly what it should do, presenting the most important element (dialogue) well enough.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by directors Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Layers Switch: 01h:02m:29s
Extras Review: While not a member of New Line's vaulted Platinum Series, The Anniversary Party still has some nice supplements, especially for a so-called "standard" release. Before I get to that, though, I have to comment on the menus, which are some of the simplest, yet appropriate and elegant, that I've seen in a while. Really functional, and really well-done.
The commentary track, with co-directors Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is low-key, but still an interesting look at the filmmaking process. The two begin by discussing the genesis of the project, and their interest in creating a script that was, while not strictly based on true events, at least similar enough to feel very personal. Being actors themselves, they spend a lot of time discussing character motivation and the way they tried to build well-rounded characters into the script. They are obviously proud of how the movie turned out, but never become too self-congratulatory.
Also worth a look is a 20-minute featurette, an episode of the Sundance Channel's Anatomy of a Scene. Decidedly non-promotional, it also does a pretty good job of avoiding simply summarizing the story. The directors, editor, and cinematographer all discuss their roles in creating the finished product, from the decision to shoot on DV to the difficulties of working on such a brief shoot (19 days) while still getting enough coverage to create a workable final product. I might have liked to hear a bit more from the supporting actors, but this is good enough. Image quality on this extra is only fair, with things looking pretty grainy throughout.
Rounding out the disc are extensive filmographies for the rather unwieldy cast and an excellent theatrical trailer.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsAn intimate look at the inner lives of a bunch of normal people only masquerading as Hollywood types, The Anniversary Party is a funny, honest look at relationships, parenthood, and marriage that manages to be relevant beyond its voyeuristic appeal as an "inside" look at movie stars. With a wonderful cast, accomplished direction from first timers Leigh and Cumming, and elegant cinematography from John Bailey, this blend of comedy and drama is well worth visiting and revisiting on DVD.
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