Our review of Frida (Blu-ray), published January 23rd, 2012, is also available.
Prepare to be seduced.
Salma Hayek found a script with a role that suited her perfectly. Driven with enthusiasm, she shopped it to several directors and got her acting friends involved. Salma coaxed Frida into reality, and is justifiably proud of the result. It is wonderful to experience a film born out of passion for the material.
Facts of the Case
Frida Kahlo is a passionate and carefree young woman. Her life is completely changed when an accident leaves her spine in shambles. To while away the hours of pain, Frida devotes herself to painting. She seeks mentorship from the great Mexican painter Diego Riviera, and the two become entwined in each other. Amid passionate political ideals, tumultuous times, overcharged sexuality, and combative personalities, the artists carve out an uneasy partnership.
Movies about artists are often criticized sharply for lack of insight, and I'm not sure why. People seem to expect magical artistic perception to pour from the screen directly into their minds. Artists are creative and have unique vision, which creates higher expectations than films about, say, lawyers or plumbers. Movies about artists are still movies, and artists are still people; reality doesn't extend beyond those constraints.
Frida delivers on the biographical front, treating us to a rousing portrayal of the life of Frida Kahlo. As a biography, the film is captivating. Frida's accident, coping strategies, friendships, and relationships are interesting in and of themselves. Not only are the colorful events of Frida's life and times represented, her spirit and mannerisms soak into the dry framework of narrative. (Mostly through Salma Hayek, which explains her Oscar nomination for best actress.) On top of it all, Julie Taymor unleashes a salvo of visual treats that edge toward the aforementioned magical representation of artistic vision. Art lovers should be pleased with this three-pronged attack.
The base of the Frida triangle is, of course, Frida Kahlo herself. Though she is a respected Mexican artist, her lifestyle and personality were perhaps more fascinating. In a word, Frida Kahlo was indomitable. Her spine-crushing accident had doctors pessimistic, but Frida walked again. (Incidentally, this event is handled without melodramatic "after school special" histrionics; thank you, Ms. Taymor.) She stuck with notorious womanizer Diego Rivera for decades and even dished out a bit of his own medicine. She arrived for her Mexican art show (a lifelong dream) despite strict orders to stay in bed. Frida has been often misunderstood, but those close to her give Frida the stamp of approval.
Salma Hayek gives a passionate performance in a role that fits her looks and temperament. Salma has not met with overwhelming critical success, which is a mystery to me. But the critical reception to this performance has been positive, earning Salma an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Frida highlights her acting strengths, and may serve to recast her previous performances in a rosier light. Alfred Molina's Diego is the perfect foil to Frida's intense personae. Molina is sublimely affable and loathsome. Frequent cameos by top-tier actors pepper the film. Each is well-cast and clearly enjoys their role. It seems like everyone involved had a great time making Frida.
Clear direction completes the triad. Julie Taymor was praised for the unique style of Titus while criticized for pacing. Frida is a completely different tack, but Taymor is no less visionary in this style. Haunting animations, amusing collages, stunning "still lifes," and other visual touches imbue Frida with a sense of magic. She adeptly handles non-effects scenes as well, using cinematic shorthand to convey deep emotion and pain. The whole affair feels colorful and organic, if somewhat unpolished, which might annoy some viewers. I enjoy the non-linear narrative and authentic representation of Mexican culture.
The spectacle is well served by the transfer quality. Frida is all about color, and the colors are quite punchy and vibrant with excellent contrast. Red and blue often inhabit the same frame with equal prominence and no bleeding. Film grain is pronounced but gracefully so. There is a minute trace of edge enhancement, which means it was used judiciously to increase sharpness. As such, there is a slight smearing of detail. Varied textures in clothing and furniture are mostly free of moiré effects, lending a welcome stability to the image. Shadow detail is high even in challenging dim scenes. The transfer accentuates Taymor's complex visuals.
Equally compelling is the sonic depth of the film. The surrounds are not emphasized, but are used to great effect in key scenes such as the crash. The front stage is capably handled, with effects transitioning cleanly. The real story is the rich score and earthy vocals. Taymor's longtime partner, Elliot Goldenthal, captures the Latin American spirit. His score is a joy to listen to despite its frequently melancholy tone. Salma belts out a few tunes, and the rest of the performers give raw, spirited performances as well. The score is carefully matched to the dramatic mood of each scene, adding depth and meaning in creative ways.
Extras are encyclopedic in scope. There is little overlap. Taymor does riff on the same themes in her pieces (a commentary, two interviews, and a featurette), but it serves to underscore her perspective. Salma is effusive in her praise of everyone connected with Frida. This enthusiasm smacks of back-patting but is probably genuine positive regard. The piece "A Conversation with Salma Hayek" could have been trimmed; you will certainly understand where Salma's heart lies at the end. Several extras give greater insight into Frida Kahlo, including a bio, facts, and an interview with her companion Chavela Vargas. The featurettes are focused and informative. The piece on Lila Downs is a nice addition because it gives a slightly outside perspective on the film and reveals the woman behind some of the music. I was impressed by the FX shorts as well. Each one of these extras would be worthwhile by themselves. As a package, the extras are exemplary. DVD collectors will be well served by this edition.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some transitions are hard to follow without previous knowledge of Frida's life. This is a minor criticism because I usually prefer confusion to predictability. If I have one true gripe, it is that Frida's painting is not really emphasized. We know she is a painter, but we don't see it as an integral part of her life. This quibble is essentially about the chosen direction of the movie; since I enjoyed what was presented I admit the hypocrisy.
The biographical elements, while well-handled, come at the expense of deeper focus. I can't help feeling that the movie skimmed over emotional depth. While I was entertained by the film and captivated by the style, I wasn't engrossed in the narrative. There wasn't a central conflict or pattern to impart dramatic tension. A tweak or two to the script might have given a perceivable cadence to the narrative.
The creative forces behind the film cannot be ignored. Frida's misdemeanors are crimes of passion, minute in the overall scale of the movie. Taymor, Hayek and crew have drawn a circle in the sand and poured their collective resources into depicting it. What it lacks in deeper perspective is balanced in the colorful realization of its chosen focus.
Art lovers should have no hesitation: Frida is a worthwhile addition to your DVD collection. Others will have to weigh their tolerance for biographical extrapolation against novel visual effects, great music, and nuanced performances. For DVD aficionados, the wealth of quality extras should sway the balance in Frida's favor.
Communists, hedonists, and scoundrels: the lot of you is free to go.
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