Actress Salma Hayek has been trying to get a film about the life of painter Frida Kahlo off the ground for so long that she eventually started to run into other competing projects (Madonna and Jennifer Lopez also wanted the role). However, with director Julie Taymor at the helm, I had little doubt that Hayek's version would be the only (or at least the first) to hit screens. Those who have seen Taymor's prior film or stage work (or were lucky enough to study elements of both in the traveling museum exhibition of her work a couple of years ago) know how well her remarkable, fascinating imagination transfers to the screen or stage, and that's true once again here.
"Frida" stars Hayek as the painter of the title. Taymor's picture opens in the 20's, as Frida was growing up in Mexico. Early on, she's terribly injured in a bus crash, but her parents do as best they can to see that she is nursed back to at least some level of good health. While she never quite broke free of the pain, she eventually began to walk again. Once up on her feet, she seeks out the advice of Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), the famed muralist. When he doesn't readily offer his opinions on her paintings, her snappy reply compells him to visit her work. After checking out her paintings, he finds both her and them remarkable. So starts a tortured relationship, full of ups and downs, with Frida becoming more and more angered with her husband's indiscretions and womanizing. The rest of the movie focuses on their lives together, from visiting New York so Diego can paint a controverial mural for Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton, who is Hayek's boyfriend and also worked on the final draft of the script), to their return to Mexico to her pregnancy.
If this sounds like a guide to Frida's life, it pretty much is. While I'm sure the picture gets things at least fairly accurately, it doesn't introduce that much conflict into the proceedings (the focus is the problems that Frida and Diego faced in their relationship; while both actors offered fine performances, this aspect of the film wasn't that compelling after a while), nor does it really give that much insight into Frida's life. In trying to fit so many years into a couple of hours, it never goes too far into one aspect. There are other issues, too - Taymor introduces some additional visual/fantasy sequences at times, such as a hospital sequence that looks like something out of Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" and another sequence that's a take-off on "King Kong". The "King Kong" sequence was okay, but the other was a bit much. Neither of these sequences fit in too well with the rest of the movie, though, and Taymor's stylish visuals of reality (the scene with Rivera's work being taken off the wall under a sheet, with chunks falling to the floor, was quite haunting) at work were interesting enough.
While I had some concerns with "Frida", I found a lot to like. Hayek's performance is spirited and highly watchable. While we never get too deep into Frida's mind, her performance still remained very engaging. Molina also turns in a superb performance as Rivera. Supporting bits from Antonio Banderas, Edward Norton, Geoffrey Rush and Ashley Judd are good, although they're introduced in a way that makes the cameo appearance of these starts a bit too apparent. Taymor and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto come up with a vivid, fascinating look to the movie, with bright colors and creative compositions.
Although the movie could have maybe captured more depth had it focused on a shorter period of time, I enjoyed it. "Frida" offers fine performances, great visuals and its two hours are quite well-paced.
VIDEO: "Frida" is presented by Miramax in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. For the most part, this is a dazzling presentation that crisply offers Rodrigo Prieto ("8 Mile")'s lush, vivid cinematography. Sharpness and detail remained quite excellent throughout the picture, as fine details were clearly visible throughout, while the picture often offered nice depth to the image.
Only a few minor, brief flaws were spotted. The picture showed some very slight edge enhancement at times; while nothing serious, it was too bad to see even this minor distraction in a picture that looked otherwise so good. No compression artifacts were spotted, nor were any spots or marks on the print used.
The film's striking color palette also looks marvelous on this DVD edition, as the rich tones are presented with superb saturation and no concerns. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate. Very nice work.
SOUND: "Frida" is presented by Miramax in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a perfectly fine soundtrack, doing exactly what it has to. The surrounds really aren't put to much use, aside from reinforcing Elliot Goldenthal's score a bit during some scenes. Other than the score and a couple of hints of ambient sound, the majority of the audio came largely from the front speakers. Where there was nothing particularly dynamic about the sound, general clarity was quite pleasing, especially in regards to the score.
Commentaries: Director Julie Taymor offers a full-length audio commentary on disc one. Also on disc one is a partial audio commentary from composer Elliot Goldenthal. Taymor's audio commentary is quite good, as the director enthusiastically jumps into a discussion of many aspects of the film, talking about everything from casting to research to technical issues. There's also some great dialogue about how Taymor was able to create a very good-looking picture without a major budget. Taymor's discussion rarely has any gaps of silence and falls into narration of the story or heavy praise even less. An excellent track. Goldenthal's commentary is insightful, but it's irritating that there's no "play all" option - viewers have to select a handful of scenes with commentary one-by-one.
Also: Also on disc one is a 37-minute interview with actress Salma Hayek. While it's great that the movie - a longtime project of hers - turned out the way she wanted, this interview isn't too involving. Hayek often scrapes the surface of an interesting topic, but doesn't go too much further, ending the thought with a discussion of how wonderful that element or cast/crew effort was. Where there are some interesting tidbits or insights to be found here, this piece starts to feel rather long.
AFI Q & A W/Julie Taymor: This 30-minute piece continues Taymor's insights into the making of the movie. As with the commentary, she starts off slightly slowly, but quickly builds up into an energetic and passionate discussion of her thoughts on the film. We learn more about the look of the film, casting, budget issues and aspects of both Frida's history and research that was done on her life.
Interview with Bill Moyer This is a 19-minute piece that offers another interview with Taymor. This interview isn't as much about the technical/production aspects as the look, characters and her feelings about the story. There's some overlapping information, but this is generally different from the prior piece. There's some good insights here, although the piece suffers a bit from including a lot of clips.
The Vision of Frida: Director Julie Taymor and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto discuss issues like the look of the period, lighting and composition in this 6-minute piece.
Portrait of an Artist: This 14-minute piece is largely a promotional documentary. While it does throw in enough insightful tidbits about the film and production to make it slightly better than the average featurette, it's still lacking in depth.
Salma's Recording Session: This piece, which only last a few minutes, shows the actress recording a song for the movie.
The Music of Frida: Elliott Goldenthal and Salma Hayek: This lightweight piece has Hayek interviewing composer Goldenthal. Hayek goes on about how wonderful the composer's work and knowledge are. The opportunity to learn more about the music of the era and culture is largely missed, as there's not enough insight in this piece, which is only about 5 minutes long.
A Walk Through the Locations: This 5-minute piece is a tour of Frida's (which was recreated for the movie) and Diego's houses. There's also a look at some of the artist's items in a museum. The film's production designer offers commentary over the footage.
Also: Interviews with singers Lila Downs and Chavela Vargas, short production design featurette with production designer Felipe Fernandez, two visual FX featurettes and Frida facts text.
Final Thoughts: I liked "Frida"'s performances quite a lot and once again largely enjoyed director Julie Taymor's visual style and imagination on-screen. However, I never felt like I learned much about the subject. Miramax's DVD offers top-notch video quality, fine audio and a few involving supplements. Recommended.
The Film ***