There are generally two groups of people in all aspects of life, the ones who embrace change and move forward with technology and the ones who are set in their ways and refuse to change the ways they do things. This statement can be applied to just about anyone in any number of situations and while I respect those who don't want to move forward the thing is that eventually they will have to be willing to do to so or they will lose out. One such advancement in technology that has been both a gift and a burden depending on who you ask is the advent of digital video use for motion pictures. It's cheaper to use then traditional film, it allows film students to rent a camera, buy some digital video tape and not have to worry about expensive film stock and film equipment. It also has it's share of disadvantages as it provides an image of lesser quality, gives off a distinctly different look to the final product and since it's so accessible just about anyone can use to shoot whatever pet project they want. While I feel that its a good thing in that more risky small projects will hit the screen it will also severely hamper the box office potential of the all the films as the average moviegoer will be unable to pick good from the bad. Still the digital medium will allow film's like "The Anniversary Party" to be made and that's a good thing.
Joe (Alan Cumming) a novelist and first time film director and Sally (Jennifer Jason Leigh) an actress who is long past her prime are a married couple who have had their share of martial problems. In fact they are just beginning to piece things back together after spending a number of month's apart. When they are together they live in Sally's beautiful home with a staff of maids, cooks and servants. They're other companion is Otis, a dog Sally loves and Joe doesn't. They live decidedly private lives away from the Hollywood spotlight and enjoy starting the day off with a relaxing round of yoga. Tonight however isn't just any night as the couple is hosting a big get together to celebrate their 6th year of marriage. The guest list includes both friends and foes and for someone who is hosting a huge party they are abnormally relaxed. This changes as the guests begin to arrive. First to arrive in the late afternoon are Cal (Kevin Kline) and Sophia Gold and their kids Jack and Evie (played by Phoebe and Kevin's real kids Owen and Greta.) Cal's an on screen legend and Sophia is an actress by trade whose currently staying at home with the kids. Arriving soon after are Clair (Jane Adams) and Mac (John C. Reilly) Forsyth. Clair is a long time friend of Sally's whose not really coping all that well after the birth of her child. She's nervous and neurotic and is constantly phoning the sitter. Also in attendance are Sally's agent Jerry Adams (John Benjamin Hickey) his wife Judy (Parker Posey), an old friend of Sally's Levi Panes (Michael Panes) and Joe's photographer friend and ex-lover Gina (Jennifer Beals). Rounding out the group are Skye Davidson (Gwenyth Paltrow) the actress starring in Joe's film and neighbors Ryan and Monica Rose (Dennis O'Hare, Mina Badie) who are close to filing a noise complaint because of Otis's incessant barking. Skye, Ryan and Monica cause an enormous amount of friction for Joe and Sally. As the evening progresses and discussions begin the insecurities of the characters begin to come to the forefront. Things get even more intense after one of the party goers gives a gift of love in tablet form.
"The Anniversary Party" marks the directorial and writing debut for Jennifer Jason Leigh (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and the first feature length directing project for Alan Cumming. Together they manage to craft a slow moving, emotional character driven piece that ends entirely different then it begins. It's very much an ensemble piece that starts off on a strong footing and only hitting a few wrong steps along the way. The film's story is simplistic in nature taking it's time to unwind upon the viewers. The years of acting experience between Jennifer and Alan lend themselves well to this picture which is small in scope. The film's nearly two hour running time goes by quite quickly especially during the film's second hour when the action heats up. Adding to the film's look is the work of cinematographer John Bailey whose camera floats from room to room as if it were simply another guest. John whose previously work include's the 35mm productions "In the Line of Fire" and the Kevin Costner baseball drama "For Love of the Game" makes the switch to the digital platform with ease knowing the limitations of the format quite well.
While the story line and cinematography is top notch if there is one aspect of this motion picture that really defines the work it's the outstanding ensemble cast lead by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Alan and Jennifer had worked together previously on the stage production of Caberet (as seen in Amy Heckerling's Loser) and had so much fun there that they decided to work together here as well. The chemistry between them is simply outstanding as they go from loving each other to hating each other and back to loving with relative ease. Throughout the picture I was convinced that they were a married couple as the connection seemed very real to me. The remainder of the cast are limited to supporting roles but all parties involved gave excellent performances. From Gwyneth's Paltrow's flirtatious actress to the basket case neurotic Clair played by Jane Adams everyone involved was at the top of their acting game. Paul Thomas Anderson regular John C. Reilly proves once again that he is one of the most talented and versatile supporting actors working today as does Kevin Kline. In the where are they now file it's nice to see both Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) back on the screen. Phoebe's much like her character has been retired for a number of years and Beals has been working steadily in a number of lower profile films. I also like to acknowledge the work of Mina Badie who is Jennifer Jason Leigh's half sister and comes across as every bit as talented as Jennifer. Also along for the ride is indie queen Parker Posey who appeared alongside Alan Cumming in "Josie and the Pussycats".
As a character driven emotional drama "The Anniversary Party" was every bit the film I was looking for and much more. It's intimate look at the relationship between a group of a friends, and a husband and wife set in and amongst the usually exclusive world of Hollywood was refreshing, quirky and extremely well written. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming assembled a cast of performers who were not only their friends but also very realistic in their roles. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the aspects of these characters were drawn from the personal experiences of the talent involved. Despite a few minor problems most notably the uneven development of some of the characters. It's visual style, it's strong performances and involving story make this "Anniversary Party" a winner. Highly Recommended.
Movie Rating : 9/10
For this DVD edition of "The Anniversary Party" New Line presents the film it's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 which is enhanced for anamorphic displays. As previously mentioned the film was shot on digital video using the Sony DSR-500 camera. Given that the production is video based it's never going to quite be able to reach the quality of a film based cousin. Having said that this is the best I've seen digital video look. Sharpness and detail are quite good even during the film many dark sequences. Colors are well defined and for the most part look quite natural. Flesh tones which can look splotchy and messy on all video based platforms don't suffer that fate here. As for imperfections with the transfer they are a few and far between as none of the usual film based issues appear. The same goes for pixelation, digital artifacting and blocking which can make digital a real nightmare for film makers. I've had the chance to look a few different films shot on digital video and this one manages to avoid the all of digital video's common problems. I'd consider this transfer as close to a 35mm presentation as one can get with a digital camera.
Video Rating : 9/10
New Line provides 2 English audio options on "The Anniversary Party" Dolby Digital 5.1 and for those of you without 5.1 receivers a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix. I went into this film with no expectations regarding the audio experience other then it was going to be a dialogue heavy affair. So it came as no surprise when that's exactly what's presented on the disc. There is no questioning that the most important part of this mix is the dialogue which is thankfully presented cleanly and clearly. It's anchored in the center channel where it remains for the entire running length of the film. The score from Michael Penn is the next most active aspect in the audio department filling the room quite nicely on numerous occasions. Surround speaker usage is limited to the occasional off camera conversation and or dog bark. Technically speaking this is subtile mix that presents the audio in a naturalistic fashion so that it sounds just as it would if you were at guest at the party.
Audio Rating : 8/10
New Line is a studio that's been doing DVD right since their very first releases. They pioneered the Special Edition disc under their Platinum Series line and during 2001 took dvd extras to the next frontier with the creation of their Infinifilm series of discs which allow viewers to go "Beyond the Movie". They have created three distinct lines, the aforementioned Infinifilm and Platinum Series and the line to which "The Anniversary Party" belongs, the standard line. Although this disc doesn't contain the number of features a disc in either of the other two lines would being from New Line you can be assured that what's included will be of top quality and not the promotional fluff that is used to pad many studio's 2 disc releases.
The big ticket item on this disc is the audio commentary with writers/directors/lead actors Jennifer Jason Leigh who starred in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and Alan Cumming who recently appeared in "Josie and the Pussycats", "Spy Kids" and in a small role in the late Stanley Kubrick's "Eye's Wide Shut". It's clear from the very beginning of the track that this is more of sit down discussion between two great friends who truly got to make their dream project than an in depth discussion of the themes involved. They do cover a nice amount of ground going over the writing process, the directing process and the advantages and limitations of shooting this film on digital video as opposed to film. The discussions surrounding how they assembled the cast they wanted and put everything together in the very short amount of time they had when everyone involved was available and the technology behind the film are by far the most interesting segments of the track. Also for the first time in recent memory the way the track starts out is different then most others. All of a sudden out of nowhere we hear the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh and then we are joined shortly thereafter by Alan Cumming. It is not until a few minutes later that they give themselves formal introductions. In general this is a very informative track but more of a discussion then a narration. Both Alan and Jennifer seem to be well prepared to discuss all aspects of the film. It does start off a bit slow but as the film progresses so does this track.
Anatomy of a Scene is a 20 minute miniature documentary looking at "The Toast" one of the key sequences in the film. It is made up of 4 segments (although it plays as one continuous piece) covering the writing, the acting, the filming and the editing. This "Making of" takes the form of interviews with principals Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming as well as editor Carol Littleton and cinematographer John Bailey as well as both completed and uncompleted film footage. In general it is quite good although it does tend to focus a little too much on the creative side and less on the technical side. It's biggest plus is that it actually offers insight into the making of the film something the majority of making of featurettes lack. It should be noted this originally aired on the Sundance Channel as part of an ongoing series. Sadly this channel is not available to Canadians like myself as I'd be interested in watching this sort of short subject documentary on a weekly basis.
Rounding out the disc we have the film's theatrical trailer running 2:30 framed at 1.85:1 and in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and the standard cast/crew text based biographies.
Extras Rating : 7/10
If you like solidly acted films with character driven stories then "The Anniversary Party" is the film for you. Although not without small problems this is a very strong picture with a very strong cast. New Line does it's usual bang up job on the disc providing the best transfer from digital video these eyes have seen, a natural sounding audio mix and a couple first rate supplements. Fans of the picture will no doubt enjoy this DVD. Everyone else should at least give this film a shot as a rental.
Disc Rating : 8/10