Digital video cameras have caused a minor revolution in filmmaking, allowing filmmakers to more easily put together a small production. Yet, there are some serious drawbacks - the image quality is not as good and, as with the case of some films like Richard Linklater's dissapointing "Tape", these pictures can sometimes feel as if a bunch of actors have gotten together and done some actorly exercises on the weekend, filmed them and called it a movie.
Thankfully, while not perfect, "The Anniversary Party" is one of the best of these features that I've viewed. Starring, written and directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, the film also stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Cumming's "Josie and the Pussycats" co-star Parker Posey and others.
The film revolves around Joe (Cumming) and Sally (Leigh), a married couple who have invited a group of friends and neighbors around for their latest wedding anniversary. Their relationship has not been too terrific, but the two are back together - Joe is a writer who is about to direct his own picture, while Sally is an actress whose career seems to be at the other side of the arc.
There's little plot to "The Anniversary Party", but it's one of those films where the cast seems natural enough and into their characters enough so that the audience is allowed to watch the dialogue and events unfold. Truth be told, it is another one of those pictures where a large number of characters are grouped with one another and little things here and there cause feelings to come to the surface and tension to arise.
Unfortunately, that doesn't happen for a while. Until then, we're forced to watch the characters present each other with small talk, much of which is satisfyingly amusing or witty. This kind of minor chatter can only hold the interest for so long, though. Eventually, the characters start taking extacy and the small talk turns into larger discussions of bigger issues. Joe yells at Sally, "you're the only person to take extacy and become angrier!"
Even during the slower moments (and there are some), the acting carries the picture nicely. Paltrow is especially wonderful playfully sending up her image a bit. Jason Leigh and Cumming are superb together, while John C. Reilly and Parker Posey provide particularly good supporting performances. The directors have also managed to get a terrific cinematographer in John Bailey ("The Big Chill", "For Love Of The Game"). In terms of camerawork, this isn't one of those digital video movies where the camera races around the grab the next conversation; instead, it moves appropriately and captures events calmly and effectively.
If anything, the screenplay is the only area where the film is somewhat dissapointing. Not all of the characters are particularly well-defined and there are some moments that begin to stray into whiny. The film could also have used about 10-15 minutes of cuts. Overall, "The Anniversary Party" does boast a great cast, whose performances are generally good. There are some moments that drag, some self-indulgent bits and some concerns with the screenplay, but these didn't really bother me greatly. I didn't love it, but I liked it.
VIDEO: "The Anniversary Party" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by New Line. Given the fact that this is shot on digital video, it does not reach the kind of quality that film can present. Yet, this is probably one of the cleaner and crisper looking digital video films that I've seen. Sharpness and detail are generally quite good, although there are a few minor moments here and there that don't quite display the same amount of crispness.
The picture seemed clean and clear throughout, which is generally to be expected from a New Line release. No print flaws appeared and the picture seemed free of edge enhancement and pixelation. Colors appeared natural and appealing, with no concerns. Given the filming style, this is probably the best that "Anniversary Party" can look - quite a nice effort from New Line.
SOUND: "Anniversary Party" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but this is certainly a film with no need or opportunity for particularly active audio use. Dialogue-driven all the way, the film opens up slightly with a few instances of music, but really never puts the surrounds to any use whatsoever. Dialogue remains clear throughout and here, that's really all that can be asked and expected.
MENUS: The main menu has slight, subtle animation. Actually, this works better, as the menu is well-designed and a good intro to the picture.
Commentary: This is a commentary from directors/actors/writers Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Their commentary, although rather low-key, is an enjoyable mixture of chat about the characters and working with the actors, as well as some of the production details of working on a low-budget, digital-video production that filmed in a matter of 19 days. They also discuss their multi-tasking on the film, both acting in lead roles, writing and directing the picture.
Anatomy of a Scene: A 20 minute documentary that was originally presented on the Sundance Channel, this is a general, enjoyable "making of" that starts off dealing more with the story and characters, then gradually slides more into a "making of" about how the digital video production was filmed. It's an okay documentary, focusing a bit too long on telling the story, finally getting to more discussion of digital video and trying to get all the actors together on a short schedule about halfway through the documentary.
Also: Trailer, bios.
Final Thoughts: "The Anniversary Party" does boast very good performances from a great cast, but the film could've used some editing and other work in areas. I didn't love it, but I liked it. Still, fans of the cast might find this an interesting rental. New Line's DVD, as expected, provides image quality that's as good as can be for the digital video picture, along with fine audio and a few solid supplements.
The Film ***
Video 85/B = (340/400 possible points)
Audio: 84/B = (336/400 possible points)
Extras: 80/B- = (240/300 possible points)
Menus: 85/B = (170/200 possible points)
Value: 82/B = (246/300 possible points)
FILM GRADE: ***
DVD GRADE: B