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Miramax Pictures presents
"I had two big accidents in my life Diego, the trolley and you. You are by far the worst."
DVD ReviewMost of the artist Frida Kahlo's works were self-portraits. The Mexican painter with the famous "unibrow" was stunningly self-aware, and her uniquely styled paintings provide a window into her perception of self. She always painted herself with a ghost of a moustache on her upper lip, perhaps an indication of her bisexuality and of her acceptance of said. Her fierce independence turned her into a feminist icon, and though she was much-loved in life, her renown has only grown in the decades since her death.
Salma Hayek worked for years to bring to the screen a film about Kahlo that was faithful to the artist and her work. Financing proved difficult, and it took the better part of a decade, but she finally found a director willing to champion her script (just as the subject matter gained some heat with a competing production in the works rumored to have Madonna or Jennifer Lopez as potential lead). Julie Taymor, the artistic visionary who breathed new life into one of Shakespeare's most maligned works with 2000's dazzling Titus, agreed to direct and to lend the script (by four credited authors, with an additional retooling from actor Edward Norton, who also has a small role in the picture) her visual flair. Sadly, it turned out to be all about the visuals. Taymor works wonders with a small budget, often literally bringing Frida's paintings to life, but there is little insight into what actually motivated the creator to create, and what it was about her that so fascinated her many lovers and admirers.
The story follows the typical biopic structure to a "T," from the promise of youth to the early life-defining tragedy, to the ups and downs of relationships, hardships, and eventual triumphs. Oscar®-nominee Hayek is winning in the title role, ably capturing the painter's exotic beauty and willful charms. The daughter of a painter, Frida, in her teens, is a victim in a bus crash (filmed with a horrific beauty by Taymor) which confines her to bed and a body cast for some years. As she lies immobile, studying her reflection in a mirror bolted to the ceiling, she begins to paint, first doodling on her body cast, then going all out with self-portraits. Soon, she has recovered (the film jumps forward in time so quickly it is often difficult to tell just when events are taking place), and her art catches the eye of Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina, in a wonderful character performance), one of the most respected painters in Mexico.
Rivera is a fascinating character, and his relationship with Kahlo is the stuff of legends. The two are soon married, but Diego's infidelities wear on his wife, who will accept his cheating, but not unfaithfulness. The majority of the film follows the two through their tangled love affair, from Mexico to New York and back, and Taymor suggests that Diego was the defining presence in Frida's life, and that most of her art sprang from interactions between the two. There is a famous self-portrait of Frida in a suit with a short, masculine haircut, her shorn locks lying at her feet. Taymor interprets the image literally, and we see Frida cut her hair after finding Diego in bed with her sister.
In the supplemental section, Taymor explains that she understood the film as a love story, and she had to pick and choose events from Frida's life. While I appreciate the difficulties of defining a life in the span of a two-hour film, I don't find myself moved by the repetitive cycle of fights and reconciliations between the two painters (Kahlo had her lovers as well). To suggest that Frida's art came primarily from this relationship seems a bit too simplistic and Hollywood. I'm sure Rivera had a profound influence on her life, but their love as depicted doesn't really tell me anything about her character or her work. Lots of name actors make cameo appearances, and more often than not, they distract (Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller? Australian Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky?)
Luckily, Taymor's assured direction and striking staging keeps the film chugging along. She frequently uses digital effects to create surreal images of paintings in motion, and we occasionally get to walk inside one of Frida's works as she paints. Some of the sequences are jarring, as when she envisions her doctors as a team of macabre puppets following the bus accident, while others are too precious (she imagines Diego's fall from grace as an artist in America as a sequence straight out of King Kong), but they're memorable, and they truly bring new life and energy to Frida's paintings.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: C+
Image Transfer Review: Most new releases look pretty good on DVD, and Frida is no exception. In fact, the elaborate visual design and the rich color palette come across particularly well. Sharpness and detail are quite good, and the picture has a nice, three-dimensional quality that is particularly striking during the "animated painting" sequences. Black level is good, as is shadow delineation, and I noticed no print defects or excessive grain. I didn't notice any compression artifacts, and if there was edge enhancement, I certainly couldn't see it.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Frida features a nuanced 5.1 track that suits the film quite well. For the most part, it's a fairly standard drama mix: front-heavy, with clear dialogue anchored in the center channel and nice stereo separation for the score and the sound effects. The surrounds do provide support for the score, which sounds particularly lush, and they kick in even more during the frequent artistic dream sequences (most notably the car crash early in the film).
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Gangs of New York, Chicago, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Julie Taymor
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Disc One includes an intelligent commentary from director Julie Taymor. It's very much a character/story track, and though she does focus a bit on technical aspects of the production, she sticks mostly to the shaping of the story and the motivations for artistic choices. Academy Award®-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal provides commentary for selected scenes. His comments will certainly be of interest to film score aficionados, but I wish there was a full blown isolated score, or at least a "play all" feature for his comments.
The first disc also includes the interview feature, A Conversation with Salma Hayek. The piece runs for 37 minutes, and though it's comprised of a simple one-shot of Hayek talking non-stop, it's still fairly compelling. This film was Hayek's baby, the summation of a decade of behind-the-scenes work, and she has a lot to say about story development and the creative process. She's very happy with the film, and she spends a lot of time praising everyone involved, but her passion for Kahlo and her art shines through. Also keep an eye out for "peeks" at Gangs of New York, Chicago, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and the self-aggrandizing "Miramax Year of Gold" Oscar bragging.
The rest of the extras (primarily a number of featurettes) are located on Disc Two. Julie Taymor offers more input with two interview pieces. The first is the 30-minute AFI Q&A. Taymor fields questions from the moderator and the audience, talks about the visual development process, and defends her story choices. It's a bland presentation—I wouldn't have minded a few illustrating film clips—but Taymor is an articulate speaker, and surprisingly enough, she rarely repeats material from the commentary. There is also the 17-minute Bill Moyer's Interview. This piece is a little glossier and more surface—Moyer's questions for Taymor focus more on the story and the characters—and it features, oddly enough, a few too many film clips, many of them irrelevant.
Next, Elliot Goldenthal interviews singer Chavela Vargas, who was a lover of Frida's and whose music provided an aural backdrop for several key sequences. She is quite emotional during her 15-minute chat, and her comments are of interest though they are only tangentially related to the picture. There are a few more bits about the music: The Voice of Lila Downs, a 5-minute profile of the woman who sang Goldenthal's original tango, and the 5-minute The Music of Frida, a fluffy chat between Hayek and Goldenthal. Finally, Salma's Recording Session is a funny clip of the actress recording her song for the soundtrack CD.
The visuals also get their due with a group of featurettes. The Vision of Frida is a 6-minute piece on director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, while the similarly brief A Walk Through the Locations shows off the hard work of production designer Felipe Fernandez, who painstakingly recreated real life locations for the film (there's more about him in the very short The Design of Frida). Special effects team Amoeba Proteus, who worked on the artsy montage sequences, provide a look into their creative process in a 9-minute segment, and the surreal puppeteers Brothers Quay talk for two minutes about their work on Frida's Day of the Dead-inspired dream sequence.
Closing out the disc is your standard promotional style featurette, the 14-minute Portrait of an Artist (misleading title, eh?) and a few text pages of Frida facts.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsFrida is a visually arresting, dramatically limp production, though it's worth watching for Julie Taymor's inspired direction and the best performance of Salma Hayek's career. Miramax has certainly showered their Oscar® darling with extras, making for one of their best DVD releases yet.
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