[box cover]


Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Starring Salma Hayak

Written by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gergory Nava & Anna Thomas
Directed by Julie Taymor

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

From the outside looking in, it would seem that writing a biographical screenplay about a famous person would be a piece of cake. After all, you don't have to come up with any plot devices or create characters or wrestle with the inevitable question of what happens next. Just do your research, sculpt it into a script, and call it a day.

But in reality, it's probably much harder to do a biopic than a wholly fictional story, if only because of the time constraints — several decades of a person's life have to be compressed into a couple of hours, and you'd better hit all the good parts because they're more or less public knowledge. The more successful films in the genre seem to have taken one of two tacks, either a) only addressing a few years of the subject's life — like Ed Harris' Pollack or the Robert E. Howard bio The Whole Wide World — or b) go the Richard Attenborough route (Gandhi, Chaplin) and make an epic, three-hour long, personal travelogue of birth-to-death highlights. And while the Julie Taymor/Salma Hayak collaboration Frida is a fascinating and entertaining film overall, it suffers from trying to straddle both approaches.

Artist and icon Frida Kahlo had a big life. She was a brilliant painter, and a lover to important people. She suffered from debilitating pain through most of her adult life, dating back to a calamitous trolley-car accident when she was 18; the accident broke her spine in three places, her right leg in eleven, and left her unable to bear children due to a metal handrail that plunged through her pelvis. Frida began painting during the years that followed that accident while she was bed-ridden, enduring some 32 operations as she was fitted with casts, her bones re-broken and mended, and agonized through countless contraptions and devices that doctors hoped would restore her health.

The accident is presented in the most artistic way imaginable — it's a beautiful cinematic moment, with limbs flying in slow-motion as gold dust flies from the hands of a passenger and twinkles prettily as it coats the accident's victims. It's a moment that exemplifies everything that's good and bad about Frida — it showcases Taymor's considerable artistic sensibilities, but tells us little about the accident itself, making something horrific and excruciatingly painful into something theatrical and, well, real pretty to look at. Also deftly — almost glibly — written is Frida's first encounter with her future husband, Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), which happened not long before her accident. The teenage Frida spies on the famous artist as he dallies with his model/mistress, until his wife (Valerie Golina) shows up with his lunch and chews him out. As laid out by Taymor, the two events seem connected. Given the pain that she'd experience through her stormy relationship with the womanizing artist, it plays as an obvious parallel to the physical pain which resulted from her injuries.

The remaining 20-plus years of Kahlo's life speed by on the screen like a slide show presentation, albeit an extraordinarily gorgeous one. We see her paint (the animated dream-like sequences connected to the paintings are the film's most successful moments); we see her dance with a woman at a party (Ashley Judd, playing Italian artist and photographer Tina Modotti — who deserves her own epic biopic rather than just a scene doing the tango); we see her fight and smooch and fight and smooch with Diego; we see her have an affair with Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush). During all of this, the hot Latin music seduces and the camera glides sexily through beautifully appointed sets, and it's all very enchanting ... up until the point where you realize that what you're watching has no more depth than your average Lifetime Network TV movie. Frida's many affairs are only vaguely hinted at, and the few liasons that are addressed (like her dalliance with Trotsky) never let us in on what she was feeling or thinking; that she was also a prodigious lover of women is barely addressed at all, an omission that's especially puzzling considering her status as icon among lesbians. We get a general idea of the genesis of her art — she was, understandably, constantly aware of death and pain, and deeply conscious of her own body, all themes of her art — but the film never delves into her actual creative process. The film rarely, in fact, lets us into Kahlo's internal workings at all, with Taymor preferring to linger on Frida/Hayak's stunning beauty, on the boldly colored sets and on the gorgeous costumes. That Taymor comes from a background in theater and is a master mask-maker (she did the theatrical Lion King production, not only directing but designing the puppets and masks) is obvious as she focuses on making everything in Frida look beautiful without dipping much beneath the surface.

Hayak does a serviceable job as Kahlo; indeed, it's hard to imagine another contemporary actress who could play the part (during the seven years she spent fighting to get the film made, Hayak was almost sabotaged by Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, both of whom also tried to get a Kahlo movie off the ground). She looks the part, and she plays the role with grace and dignity. But Hayak might have made a better choice of directors; as beautiful as Frida is — have I mentioned enough times how drop-dead gorgeous the movie looks? — Taymor seems to lack the directing chops to draw any depth from her actors (her one previous feature, Titus, was hugely operatic and had big, bold actors like Anthony Hopkins and Alan Cumming playing Shakespeare to the cheap seats, none of which called for a subtle touch). Basically Hayak isn't bad as Frida, but there's no there there; and the fact that she plays the movie without Kahlo's famous moustache (save a slight, wispy shadow above her lip in the opening scenes) indicates that Hayak wasn't any more interested in delving deeper in the character, either. But it sure is pretty to look at ... it just isn't the film that genuine fans of Frida Kahlo have been clamoring for all these years.

*          *          *

Buena Vista does Frida proud on DVD with a big, two-disc presentation in pristine anamorphic (1.85:1) widescreen. The color palette on this film is amazing, as is Rodrigo Prieto's stunning cinematography, and it's all beautifully presented here. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very good, doing justice to Elliot Goldenthal's Golden Globe/Academy Award-winning score.

Disc One offers the film with two optional commentaries. One by director Julie Taylor and the other by music man Goldenthal. Taymor's track is very good — extremely detailed and scene-specific, and her memory is incredible, for everything from what the weather was like the day of a particular shot to how they got locations to the technical specifications of particular complicated scenes. She shares so much detail about the history and personalities who appear in the film, in fact, that one wishes that there had been more of it up on the screen. Goldenthal's track will be appealing to lovers of movie scores — 20 scenes are offered on a separate menu, with Goldenthal describing the how he concocted the music for them. Also on board is a lightweight, 38-minute Interview with Salma Hayak, basically a monologue where she touches briefly on various aspects of the movie without really saying much beyond the usual "it was a great experience and everyone was wonderful" blather, plus ads for Miramax DVD releases and for the Frida soundtrack album.

Disc Two is packed with Frida-licious goodness. There's the 30-minute AFI Julie Taylor Q & A, a terrific feature with Taylor enthusiastically detailing the process of making the film (much of this information is repeated, in a different tone, in her commentary track); Taymor's interview with Bill Moyers, a clip-heavy promo interview that focuses mostly on production design; an interview with Chavela Vargas, who not only provided some of the haunting songs on the soundtrack, but was Frida's lover; an interview with Lila Downs, another singer on the soundtrack who seems to have modeled her own look on Kahlo (which is sort of bizarre, actually); The Vision of Frida, a six-minute featurette with Taymor and Prieto on the visual look of the film; The Design of Frida, with producion designer Felipe Fernandez; Hayak and Goldenthal discussing The Music of Frida; Hayak singing in Salma's Recording Session; the 5-minute Walk Through the Real Locations, which visits Kahlo's and Rivera's homes and the building of the sets, with commentary by Fernandez; Portrait of An Artist, a 14-minute Miramax promo piece with clips; two Visual Effects Featurettes, one on the hospital scene directed by the Brothers Quay and the other a visit with two identically nasal FX supervisors as they describe how they did some of the composite/collage effects; and Frida Kahlo Facts, a thumbnail biography.

— Dawn Taylor

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