Fortune can make a man do some pretty fowl things.
I am going to call this film one of those little gems that you've never heard about. Until I saw it pop up in my mailbox, I'd never heard of Rare Birds so I'm willing to bet most of you are just like me. Upon seeing the cover, I immediately became wary because of the giant mug of William Hurt staring back at me. Admittedly, I have not seen most of his films, and the few I have seen weren't all that impressive (Lost In Space, anyone?). So when the time came to watch the film, I was afraid.
I decided to watch the theatrical trailer first and my hopes arose as the film looked like it could be a cute romantic comedy. Yet at the end of my first viewing, I was disappointed. I felt that there was a lot of potential that wasn't found and expanded upon, and I also was put off by several supporting details of the movie. However, being one of the many thorough reviewers on this fine site, I gave the disc a second spin (truthfully for the commentary track) and discovered a better movie. The details fell into place, not completely yet smartly, and the story was much more refreshing and fun. Upon my second viewing, I discovered a sweet film with exceptional acting. It still has its problems, but don't let the rubber ducky, or William Hurt's face, on the cover scare you.
Facts of the Case
Dave Purcell (William Hurt, A.I., Dark City, Kiss of the Spider Woman) is a man replete with emotional problems. He wallows in his own self-pity, self-remorse, and self-loathing day after day while his restaurant, The Auk, sits empty night after night. The Auk is nestled on the edge of a beautiful, rugged cove in a remote corner of Newfoundland. It isn't necessarily the remoteness that keeps the customers away but more of a lack of marketing on Dave's part. Dave actually is an excellent chef who's always whipping up his special duck recipes for his eccentric friend Phonse.
One day after cleaning up The Auk's sewer lines and enjoying yet another helping of duck, Phonse and Dave are having a random conversation when we see the first signs of Phonse's paranoia. It seems that there are people lurking about the cove spying on Phonse. Dave is quite surprised by this odd turn in the conversation and doesn't fully believe his friend. However, as Phonse is the more dominant personality of the two, he intimates to Dave some obscure details about an "SRV" that he's working on. Dave is utterly confused and really has no idea what his friend is talking about. Soon, the two are taking a walk in the hills around The Auk when Phonse discovers proof that there are spies in the cove! According to Phonse, it's the people from Winnebago who are committing industrial espionage against him and his SRV.
To help fill in the blanks, Phonse invites Dave over for dinner that evening. There, Dave meets Phonse's "bookish" cousin Alice, who really isn't all that bookish. Actually, she's a subtly sultry young lady who belies her intelligence with a very warm and friendly persona. Immediately, Dave is attracted to the younger Alice; but not just because of her looks but also because of her true kindness, warmth, and intelligence.
After dinner, Phonse escorts Dave to his shed. Of course, as Phonse is quite eccentric, they don't walk outside. No. Instead, they take the secret tunnel from the house to the shed. It is during this walk we learn that Phonse has "met" some unusual people in his time, including a man by the name of Svetlov. It seems that Svetlov developed a most impressive new type of lighting, which looks like pillowcases hanging to dry on a line that seems to break the law of energy. What exactly that is, I don't know. These lights now adorn the secret tunnel.
Once the two men get to the shed, even more odd things come to light about Phonse. For one thing, he has 26 pounds of cocaine in the shed, which he claims he just found in the water one day. Dave is stunned yet delighted because Dave, and his emotional problems, finds a happy release with a quick snort of the stuff. Phonse would like Dave, as he's a worldly man who's been to the city, to find someone he can sell the drugs to and make some money. You can tell Dave has no idea what's going on but acquiesces so he can be close to the cocaine. Yet another very odd thing about Phonse is the SRV he's been prattling on about that day. It turns out the Phonse has built a Submarine Recreation Vehicle, and he truly believes that Winnebago wants to stop him from capitalizing on his design! His two-person sub is almost ready for trials, but he may need Dave's help to keep a lookout for those evil Winnebago-types.
Unfortunately, Dave doesn't think he's going to be around much longer because of his failing restaurant. It is at this point that Phonse comes up with a brilliant scheme to lure customers to The Auk. As every bird watcher knows, Newfoundland is a haven for many unique and wondrous birds from all around the globe. Thus, Phonse convinces Dave to call in a phony sighting of the rarest of birds to a local, popular birding radio show. It is Phonse's belief that The Auk will be flooded by birders from all around who want to see the rare "Sulphorous Duck."
Amazingly, Phonse's plan works and soon enough the cove and The Auk are inundated with hundreds of people looking for a glimpse of the duck. The restaurant is doing amazingly yet Dave is still a bit twitchy. However, things slowly change as Alice, who is now the hostess at The Auk, begins to pull out the hidden self-confidence in Dave.
Does this all sound complicated? Hopefully not, for the movie spells it out quite well. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg as more peril and twists await our friends at The Auk. Are the people from Winnebago really spying on Phonse? Will Phonse use his SRV? Will anything happen between Dave and Alice? How do the Svetlov lights work? Will someone figure out that the Sulphorous Duck was never seen at the cove? Who are those people asking a lot of questions in The Auk? Will Dave's estranged wife come to visit at the wrong moment? Will the sun ever shine in fog enshrouded Newfoundland?
"Always have a Plan B, Dave."
There is very little to say about the video and audio transfers on the disc, which is a shame for a movie from 2001. On the video side, we do get an anamorphic widescreen print that is clean, free of edge enhancement and artifacting, and has accurate colors. However, not all is well with the video. Foremost the transfer is very, very soft. Nothing is especially sharp nor does it present any feeling of depth. There is a soft haze and grain to every scene that gets dramatically worse during the occasional night shot. I am quite disappointed in the video transfer for such a recent film. Compounding this is the 2.0 Dolby audio track. Again, for a movie released in 2001, where's the 5.1 track? The sound of the oft-crashing waves in the cove could have been wondrous on a 5.1 track, but that's not to be found. Instead, we get a perfectly adequate stereo track that gives us an easy-to-understand dialogue track. I will admit, though, that the track does have a bit more punch than most 2.0 tracks…which again makes me long for the missing 5.1 track. I wish I had more to say about the transfers, but it can be easily summarized that they are merely adequate—and that, again, is a disappointment.
Now that I have that out of the way, let me start heaping some praise on this film. There are three things in particular that are simply quite outstanding: direction, cinematography, and acting. Director Sturla Gunnarsson isn't a name that anyone has probably heard of (but probably won't be easily forgotten now that you've seen it—and, no, he's not from Fargo) as his résumé does not have any big Hollywood titles on it. However, his direction is solid, assured, and inventive. I enjoyed the various ways he which he conveyed and told the story. Couple that with the breathtaking cinematography of Jan Kiesser, and this movie is truly something wondrous to watch. As rugged and foggy that area of Newfoundland is, its true beauty came through as if it were a gloriously sunny day. After viewing Rare Birds, I would love to take a visit up north and find that cove.
And then there is the acting of William Hurt, Molly Parker, and Andy Jones. Each actor expertly embodies their character and brings them fully and completely to life. I simply cannot recall another film in recent memory with such superb acting. William Hurt was so expressive as Dave, Molly Parker so innocently sultry as Alice, and Andy Jones so quirky as Phonse that I never once had a moment where I felt that they were actors in a film. It simply felt that they were those people. It was during my second viewing when I realized just how superb their performances were, and what makes this film a hidden gem.
The disc does contain a few, minor special features that do not add much to the experience. Hidden under the Lions Gate logo on the main menu screen are three trailers that run back to back to back: Rare Birds, Monster's Ball, and Lantana. I will admit that the previews have enticed me to give the other two movies a spin, so they did their job well enough. You also get some production artwork, which are simply rough drafts and simple CGI sketches of the various sets—nothing exciting or worthy of a second viewing. The main bonus feature is the full-length audio commentary with director Sturla Gunnarrson, director of cinematography Jan Kiesser, first assistant director Alex Pappas, and a "friend." Unfortunately, it's quite dull, and I learned very little about what went into the making of this movie. Director Gunnarrson is the main speaker during the track, and he mainly enjoyed talking about the actors and the weather of Newfoundland. When he falters, Jan Kiesser would ask him questions—sometimes good, sometimes bad. Why she didn't talk more about her cinematography is quite perplexing; I would truly have enjoyed hearing more about what she did on the movie. Pappas and the friend barely say anything and could have stayed home that day. What I did learn from the track was that the filming of the movie took place right after a hurricane hit the area (a documentary on the effect of a hurricane on the film would have been a great bonus feature) and that there are quite a few scenes that were trimmed—which should have been included on the disc too! Overall, the special features are not that special.
And, whether this is truly new or not, it is new to me. The keep case for the DVD has a new type of center spindle for holding the disc, which I'll temporarily call the "push-clip" keeper. The "left half" is your standard "spikes" while the "right half" is actually a push-button that will release the disc. I liked it at first as it very easily releases the disc upon pressing the button; however, putting the disc back in is a bit more difficult than with other cases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Always have a Plan C, Dave."
After my first viewing, I had two big problems with the film. First, and I guess you can call me a prude, I really detested the drug use in the movie. As the movie is based on Edward Riche's book, I cannot fault the producers for Dave having this vice. In the book, Dave tries to lose himself in drugs and spirals out of control. In the movie, this is only hinted at and his drug use is dramatically reduced. On my second viewing, knowing it was there, the drug use wasn't quite so troubling…yet I still didn't like it.
However, the entire subplot with Phonse and his SRV and the people from Winnebago was weak and somewhat confusing. You see, at heart, this is a light comedy yet there's this weird layer of subterfuge that's occurring in the background. Every time it comes to the forefront, you're caught off guard, as it's polar opposite of the main comedic tendencies of the film. It is interesting the two paths this movies takes, and the movie tries to balance the two; but it doesn't always work. Its split personality is a bit disconcerting, and this leads to a vaguely unsatisfying ending.
"This is Plan D."
It isn't necessarily the story nor the disc itself that I enjoyed here, but the exceptional acting of the three principals. If for nothing else, I recommend this disc as a rental to see how actors are meant to portray a role. As indicated, the story isn't the strongest but it is appealing in the different paths it takes to get from Plan A to B to C and finally to D.
Lions Gate is hereby sentenced to six months of bird watching during the winter in Newfoundland, for they are guilty of allowing a new film to go to disc with adequate video and audio transfers. There is no excuse for a one-year-old film to not come with a sharp video transfer and no surround audio track. Case adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Sturla Gunnarsson, Director of Cinematography Jan Kiesser, First Assistant Director Alex Pappas, and Neddy Wilde
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