Lionsgate // 2002 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // January 23rd, 2012
I hope the exit is joyful and I hope never to return.
On the whole, I do not like biopics. Telling the story of somebody's entire life within a two hour time frame is next to impossible on any substantial level. This is especially true regarding biopics about artists and writers, whose processes are more boring to watch than paint drying. Given the right sense of style and the right approach to the telling of the subject, though, a filmmaker can get beyond the pitfalls that befall nearly all of these films. The only person, for me, who has been able to succeed at it is Julie Taymor, whose second film is a beautifully artistic account of the life of Frida Kahlo. Frida is ten years old now, which seems crazy, and has been blessed with a lovely Blu-ray edition from Lions Gate.
After being stricken as a very young girl by polio, Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek, Lonely Hearts) had her body broken in a horrific bus accident that nearly killed her. While recovering in her body cast, her parents gave her an easel, canvas, and some paints to help her pass her time. Through this, an artist was born. Her talent was immense, but so was the pain she experienced throughout her life, both the physical pain from her injuries and the emotional pain of her attachment to popular Communist artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina, An Education), with whom she forms a strong partnership, despite his serial womanizing.
Whatever I may think about some of Julie Taymor's more recent choices (like Spiderman on Broadway), I will always lover her for directing Titus, my favorite Shakespeare adaptation, and Frida, the only biopic I really give a damn about. In both of those early pieces, it is clear how much she reveres the material, but her reverence is tempered by her need to tell a story visually, which means breaking away from the traditional conventions that have often gone into depicting Shakespeare and, especially, telling somebody's life story. Frida depicts some of the major events in the artist's tumultuous life, but the film melds these events with her paintings and, most important, her unquenchable spirit in such a way that the film becomes its own piece of art. It's a breathtaking experience that few films resemble.
Take, for example, the depiction of Kahlo's fateful bus crash. Rather than simply showing the violence of a horrific wreck, Taymor presents it in an almost flat image as the bus nears the building. Then, instead of directly showing what happened to break her body, she cuts to the aftermath; young Frida lying unconscious and gnarled, a pole through her side, debris falling onto her like snow, her body covered in gold paint (a detail established early in the scene). This kind of painter's image comes up time and again in different forms. At its most striking, Taymor stages Frida Kahlo's paintings as live still images (without CG, no less), only to have them slowly turn into moving scenes. Some might call such a thing pretentious, but when a director is trying to show the world of a painter whose entire life was depicted in painting, this is the only way to go.
Frida is a beautiful production, full of color and life, but this is really Salma Hayek's show. Her portrayal of Kahlo is incredible, the best performance of her career. She gets everything right, from Kahlo's pain to the pleasure she took in life to the drunken rages to the constant limp, all without the need to be beautiful all the time. She had been trying to get this film made for years, but in having to wait all that time, she found the perfect combination of cast and crew. Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera is almost as good as Hayek and they have an undeniable chemistry together. Geoffrey Rush (Shine) is great as Leon Trotsky, with whom Kahlo had a noted affair, Edward Norton (American History X) is perfect as Nelson Rockefeller, and Ashley Judd (Kiss the Girls) is delightful as noted photographer Tina Modotti. Everybody, famous or not, works together beautifully. Without this cast, it might have been nothing but pretty imagery, but they give the film so much. Combined together, there are few films of the time that I love as much as Frida.
The original DVD release for Frida was very good, with a solid image and sound for the time. This Blu-ray, though, is a huge technical upgrade. The old transfer was generally good, but there were problems with clarity, especially during the scenes with Frida in Paris when the color balance changes into something close to black and white. In this 1.85:1/1080p transfer, however, the entire thing is perfect. Those scenes are super crisp and clean, while the entire thing blooms with bright and beautiful colors. The flesh tones look amazing and the representations of the paintings, whether the art itself or the staged pieces that emerge as live action, are brilliantly rendered, so fine that even the brush strokes are visible. The DTS-HD surround sound mix isn't as incredible as the picture, but I have no real complaints. There's a lot of atmosphere throughout the spectrum, the dialog is all nice and clear, and the music is very strong, but it doesn't have a lot more punch than the mix that existed previously.
My only complaint about Frida (Blu-ray) is the extras. It's not that they're bad or sparse, but they are all exactly the same as the original DVD. Everything has been brought over and they're all in standard definition, which is a disappointment. Julie Taymor's commentary track is really excellent; she's an eloquent speaker and knows exactly what she was going for in her film, but it isn't a huge thrill to hear her go over all these things again. Likewise, the information that is repeated in the two interviews with her has a lot of redundancy with the commentary, so beyond a few little tidbits, there's not a lot to recommend about them, unless you'd like to hear Bill Moyers gush over her talents. The thirty minute discussion with Salma Hayek is very informative and she clearly loves the subject and is proud of the results of the long road she took to get the film made. The making-of featurette is good, the short pieces on the puppet sequence by the Brothers Quay is short but fun, and the interview with singer Chavela Vargas is excellent. It all amounts to a very solid slate of extras, but for anyone who already owned the DVD, it won't convince anyone of an upgrade. On the other hand, the image is such a huge improvement that fans of the film should really pick up the Lions Gate Blu-ray disc.
Frida is an incredible film. The imagery is beautiful, the performances are incredible, and the story works better for me than any other biopic in existence. The Blu-ray disc could really have used some new extras, since everything on it is a decade old, but that's a small price to pay for such a great image upgrade. It reminds me of all the reasons I love this movie. Now, if I could only somehow convince Julie Taymor to quit with the super hero musicals, we'd be in business.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R