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"All we're doing is taking pictures."
DVD ReviewThis biopic from director Mary Harron (American Psycho) attempts to document the meteoric life and times of 1950s pinup queen/cultural fantasy icon Bettie Page, played here with a coy mix of deep religious faith and innocently kinky sexuality by Gretchen Mol. The actual Page story perhaps isn't nearly as fascinating as the way her popularity has eclipsed her short career, with her permanent status locked in as something much more than a kitsch sex goddess from another time. That is, if you happen to be enamored of the person considered to be the pinnacle of 1950s pinup girls.
OK, I'll confess to being a big Page fan, but I like to think I can also step back when it comes to deciphering the merits of whether this can fly as mainstream entertainment. The Page fans, and we are still out in force, are no doubt Harron's target here, because in the end the script (penned by Harron and writer Guinevere Turner) doesn't really offer up any overtly fascinating subplots that would make the story of a smalltown girl-turned-sex-object particularly riveting. And that is actually kind of difficult to believe. Sure, it's presented as a bio, but maybe Page's personal story just isn't as inherently interesting as compared to what she ultimately became. Something much more than a figure in Senate subcommittee investigation into pornography. Something much more than a girl who posed for "naughty" pictures.
So as fodder for the regular joes—those non Page-ites—I don't really get who would necessarily warm to this. It probably looks like a movie about a nude model, with lots of nudity, which I guess it sort of is, but to us Page freaks it's a lot more.
For better or worse, we Page buffs are predestined to be drawn to this, because we want to see Mol-as-Page on her path from religious teenager to her early modeling days to that wonderfully fateful day when she began posing for the brother/sister team of Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer, Lili Taylor). And the wonderful news is that Mol does a very fine job in the lead role, as well as its call for frequent unfettered full nudity. Mol really becomes the pinup star, moreso even than Paige Richards did in the comparatively thin Bettie Page: Dark Angel, and that transformation really becomes most evident during Harron's recreations of certain key Page "artistic" moments, whether it be posing with leopards, big boots, or spanking a bound woman.
Sadly, there isn't as much to tell here about the story as it is about the journey, though Harron has constructed a stylish looking film, one that dribbles equally with '50s politeness and repression. Telling Page's life in syrupy black-and-white (using The American Astronaut d.p. Mott Hupfel), Harron dips easily into a period look (complete with groovy stylized wipes and transitions), and she only uses vibrant hues in small bursts. during Page's travels to Miami, which take on an Oz-like explosion of color. Oddly enough, it is the Miami sequences that seem the most unbalanced, and as someone already familiar with Page's "career", I found the depth given to the work of photographer Bunny Yeager (played here by Sarah Paulson) getting the short shrift in the storytelling department.
For all my apparent bemoaning, I did actually enjoy Harron's film. That's because I'm a Page fan. Did I feel I learned any serious insights? Not really. But Mol did become Page here (just watch that dance sequence played over the final credits), and Harron's treatment of the subject is with obvious adoration, too. That works for me. I'm just not sure about you.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks properly vintage, with the film's black-and-white palette offering up some sharp contrast levels, at least for parts of the film. It's not a flawlessly consistent transfer by any means, and there are times when image clarity becomes noticeably softer, with blacks and greys coming a bit on the muddy side, with more pronounced grain. This is most prominent after a sequence where Harron has employed slightly grainy archival location footage, so perhaps this was intentional as a device to blend somewhat more seamlessly. The few color sequences, most of which are set in Miami, explode with the expected wash of bright primary colors, and present a dramatic contrast.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The primary audio track is a modestly effective Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, one that delivers crisp (if particularly unremarkable) voice quality, with slight movement across the front channels. Occasional surround activity here and there, but the boost comes during the frequent period songs (Julie London, Peggy Lee, etc), which have a zippy full-bodied heft to them, and that really raises the bar.
A Spanish language 2.0 track is also included.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Gretchen Mol, Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
Extras Review: There's a commentary track from writer/director Mary Harron, actress Gretchen Mol and writer Guinevere Turner, though Turner is not present at the outset. Harron steers the material, augmenting traditional production info and offering more insight into the research done on Page herself. There are times when differentiating the speaking voices make it difficult to pick out who's who, but the content is rewarding, especially for Page-ites.
A short doc entitled An Inside Look At The Pinup Queen of the Universe (15m:00s) is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen, and features comments from Harron and other cast/crew, discussing "the paradox" of Page, in between clips from the film. A neat plus is Presenting Bettie Page (02m:44s), a soundless color nudie short of the real pinup queen getting ready for bed. Hubba.
A few trailers, including one for the feature, are also included. The disc is cut into 12 chapters, with optional English subtitles.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsNot the deepest story ever told, but director Mary Harron attractively paints this one with a hip, retro eye, and Gretchen Mol delivers a highly watchable performance, full of playful innocence and leather-booted domination.
Highly recommended—without question—for all Page fanatics, but all others might not get why the rest of us are so giddy over a 1950s pinup girl.
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