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Miramax Pictures presents

Full Frontal (2002)

"I'm too committed to my work to sustain a serious relationship right now. I'm taking a swim in Lake Me."- Adolph Hitler (Nicky Katt)

Stars: David Duchovny, Nicky Katt, Catherine Keener, Mary McCormack, David Hyde Pierce, Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood
Other Stars: Brad Pitt, David Fincher, Terence Stamp
Director: Steven Soderbergh

MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Run Time: 01h:40m:46s
Release Date: 2003-02-11
Genre: drama

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Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BB+B- B+

 

DVD Review

How cool it must be to be Steven Soderbergh. Appearing in one of his films these days has the cachet that Woody Allen's pictures used to have—on this one, for instance, he got his pal Brad Pitt to do a day's work for SAG scale—and he's not satisfied to pump out one more of the same every eighteen months. Soderbergh is that rare find, the established, successful commercial motion picture director, unafraid to take risks—even when his movies aren't good (and come on now, no one's are always good), they are always interesting.

So after the big-time triumphs of Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean's Eleven, it was a pretty bold (if not financially astute) move to shoot an experimental picture on the fly, in eighteen days, messing around with storytelling conventions, and trading in high-end motion picture cameras for off-the-rack digital video handhelds. The result is Full Frontal, not a conventionally told Hollywood picture by a long shot, and no doubt disappointing audience members lured in by the names above the title—if you're looking for Julia Roberts doing another spin à la Pretty Woman, or David Duchovny in X-Files mode, or David Hyde Pierce as fastidious Niles Crane, you'd be well advised to look elsewhere. (Even the tag line on the DVD case—"Chance Meetings. Steamy Interludes. Sizzling Secrets"—make it sound like a conventional made-for-cable something or other.) Soderbergh and his cast and crew take some great, brave risks here—I can't say that all of them pay off, but there's a whole lot to recommend about this movie.

Full Frontal takes place over one fevered twenty-four hour period, in Los Angeles, interweaving the lives of its six principal characters. David Hyde Pierce plays Carl, a writer for Los Angeles magazine, whose own screenplay is currently in production—it's about a movie star (Blair Underwood) being profiled by a magazine writer (Julia Roberts). Carl's wife, Lee (Catherine Keener), is a successful human resources executive who's becoming unhinged, asking insanely inappropriate questions in job interviews ("Do you believe in God?" or "Name all the countries in Africa."). Lee's sister (Mary McCormack) is a massage therapist, who meets men online in chat rooms—she's due to fly off to Tucson to meet a guy who's allegedly a 22-year-old artist, but is in fact two decades older than that, and also lives L.A. His name is Artie, and he's writing and directing an excruciatingly bad play, at a dumpy little L.A. theater—the name of the drama is The Sound and the Führer, and features a Hitler (a hilarious Nicky Katt) getting in touch with his inner emotions. (See the quote at the top of this review for a fair indication of just what this Oprahfied Adolph sounds like.)

That brief summary doesn't give much of the flavor of the piece, and in fact the movie is at its least successful when it's most conventional. The device of a birthday party is used to bring all the characters together at the end, but you can feel the machinery creaking—the film is much more engaging when it concentrates on the nuances of character and relationships, and especially at conveying just what it's like to live in Los Angeles, with the movie business and illusions going on all about you. The technical conceit is that the film within the film is shot on conventional stock, while everything else is on digital video—the small handheld cameras allowed Soderbergh to shoot just about all of it in master shot, so the actors had the freedom not to worry about hitting their marks or matching previous takes. It makes for some compelling stuff—the marriage between Keener and Hyde Pierce is especially well drawn, and parts of it can be excruciating.

So in many ways this is more an exercise in style than a carefully told story—if you're not resentful about not getting the latter, you may find a lot of virtues in the former. I admit to coming to this DVD with less than a full dose of enthusiasm, given the critical hammering the movie took last year; and maybe it's exactly because my expectation level was tamped down, but there's a lot here to mull over, and it's got more intellectual nourishment than a raft of studio pictures that each cost fifty or a hundred times as much to produce.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Soderbergh was his own camera operator, and was going for a grainy, contrasty look with the DV footage—it's not the most aesthetically pleasing, but it's just what he was after. Similarly, the 35mm footage looks deliberately generic, contrasting well with what surrounds it. The transfer is a sharp one, and the carefully realized style of the film is well rendered on this disc.

Image Transfer Grade: B+
 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
English, Frenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: The limited technical capacity of the shoot seems most evident on the audio track—though the dialogue is almost always audible, there's not a lot of crispness to it, and there's a whole lot of ambient noise. You may find yourself straining to make out all the actors' words, but the 5.1 mix presents the music-free audio track as cleanly as possible under the circumstances.

Audio Transfer Grade: B- 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
16 Deleted Scenes
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Steven Soderbergh and Coleman Hough
Packaging: Alpha
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Six in-character interviews
Extras Review: Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough contribute a smart, chatty commentary track, covering the genesis of the project (a series of one-acts by Hough) and its evolution—what's especially impressive about Soderbergh is his finding the right filmmaking style to fit the material, instead of shoehorning the script into whatever preconceived notion he's got in mind. There are also all kinds of fun facts: for instance, both David Duchovny and David Hyde Pierce auditioned for the part that eventually went to James Spader in Soderbergh's first feature, sex, lies and videotape. There's a great back and forth between director and writer, but at one point, Soderbergh discusses his use of sound in the film, and it sounds as if these audio clips were dropped in from a different interview, without Hough in the room.

The sixteen deleted scenes are all very brief, little snippets, really—all together, they don't even run seventeen minutes, but Hough offers some commentary on them, and she seems pretty generous and happy about the manner in which her screenplay was utilized. (It was more of a launching point than a document to be followed to the letter.) It's a shame, though, that some of the punchlines here had to be cut—my favorite is unquestionably Blair Underwood snapping at Der Führer, "Your moustache is crooked, Hip Hop Hitler."

Six interviews with the actors in character run for close to an hour—it's a kick to see them exploring their parts, answering the same basic questionnaire (Do you believe in U.F.O.s? Under what circumstances would you tell a lie?), but this generally feels more like actors' exploratory work and research than anything else. Including more of this in the feature would have been more indulgent than entertaining, which no doubt is why they're in the supplements, and not the final cut.

The Rules (07m:26s) features Soderbergh and most of the principal cast members discussing the memo that circulated with the script, alerting potential participants that this project was seriously low budget: no trailers, no crafts service, no costume, no makeup. That do-it-yourself spirit brims over on screen, to the movie's benefit. Spycam Selects (03m:08s) is just a random assortment of off-camera chatting; a conversation with Soderbergh (07m:09s) shows the director discussing the film, which he sees as sort of the flip side to Ocean's Eleven. He discusses this movie as his up-to-date version of sex, lies and videotape, and offers, with a wry smile: "If Woody Allen moved west and dropped a lot of acid, he might have come up with something like this."

Extras Grade: B+
 

Final Comments

Audiences lured in by the promise of another Ocean's Eleven are sure to be disappointed, and a truthful advertising campaign would bill this as "A film from the director of Schizopolis and Kafka." This is pretty provocative fare from a filmmaker whose previous handful of projects were about as mainstream as you can get, and a smart package of extras help to make a persuasive case for this movie, which pushes the envelope of conventional studio filmmaking.

Jon Danziger 2003-02-09