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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 70.28)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Audio commentary - Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming
  • Animated menus
  • Documentaries - Sundance Channel "Anatomy Of A Scene"
  • 14 Filmographies

The Anniversary Party

Fineline Features/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 110 mins . MA15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

The coming together of friends for an occasion of some sort has proven to be a reliable source of story material for movies in recent years. From The Big Chill to Four Weddings And A Funeral and lesser-known independent works like The Celebration, filmmakers and screenwriters have found rich opportunity to explore emotions and feelings in ensemble fashion. Many such films turn out to be exercises in nostalgia, but it’s a sub-genre ripe with possibilities for a filmmaker willing to experiment. In The Celebration writer-director Thomas Vinterberg worked within the Dogme philosophy pioneered by Danish director Lars von Trier, shooting on videotape with hand-held camera and available light to make the viewer an almost active participant in what becomes a rather interesting dinner party. But for actor-writer-directors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, putting their script for The Anniversary Party onto the screen meant careful craft rather than well-orchestrated chaos. “You don’t have to make films like the camera operator’s just done a line of speed or something,” Cumming points out during the directors’ commentary on this disc, and the resulting film bears that out.

Actually, “film” is the wrong term to use here (though the directors almost absent-mindedly use it a lot!) - The Anniversary Party was, with the exception of one short scene, entirely shot on digital video. The almost impossibly-fast shooting schedule is the main reason offered for this, though of course it’s way, way cheaper to produce a feature on video than on film - indeed, Cumming points out that the cost of the film stock for the one scene that used it was more than the price of blank videotape for the rest of the movie. For an independent feature, any cost saving that large makes extremely solid financial sense, as long as the results measure up.

The Anniversary Party takes us through 24 hours in the lives of Sally Nash (Leigh) and Joe Therrian (Cumming), a married couple who’ve recently reunited after an estrangement and are now celebrating their wedding anniversary, which they’ve invited all their friends to celebrate with them. Sally is a very well-known Hollywood actress, while Joe is a British novelist who’s just sold the film rights to his bestselling book - which may possibly have been based on him and Sally’s real-life experiences. Young-and-bubbly new star Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) has been signed to play the lead role that Sally thought was her own, and her appearance at the party sets some sparks flying early. But this is a collection of film industry types, this is at a rather opulent house in the Hollywood hills, and someone’s brought along a rather generous quantity of Ecstasy tablets. That provides the catalyst for unexpected emotions and revelations, and it soon becomes very clear that these people are not as happy as they would like to think they are…

Both very well known and respected as actors, Leigh and Cumming know their subject matter well, and as a result find both unexpected comedy and poignant tragedy in the midst of what initially looks like a benign get-together. Working with a seriously low budget, the writer-directors called on favours from their friends when it came to the casting. It does help, of course, when your friends include Gwyneth Paltrow, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Jennifer Beals, Parker Posey, Jane Adams and John C Reilly - all of whom are in this production, most of them having worked on earlier films with either Leigh or Cumming (and a surprisingly large amount of them acted with Leigh in Alan Rudolph’s Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle - this movie’s almost a cast reunion). Written expressly for the actors that play them, these characters have depth and colour - and often are loosely based on the actor themself.

Though it's tagged as a comedy three times on the back cover of this DVD (in the review quotes), The Anniversary Party actually isn’t - yes, there are comic and satirical moments throughout, but at its heart this is a drama, an often wrenching one that allows the always-compelling Leigh to put her acting abilities to the test. It’s an interesting combination - the adventurous serious dramatic actress writing and directing a movie with a Scottish actor best known for his comedic roles (like the recent Josie And The Pussycats). But it’s that very thing that makes this work so well - you’re disarmed by the fun nature of it all as you get to know the characters, and then things change dramatically. The character played by newcomer Michael Panes is a good example; he’s funny, instantly likeable and bears a remarkable resemblance to Peter Sellers (and even does an impersonation of Sellers in The Party, amusingly) but there’s something dark lurking just beneath the surface. While his character isn’t the centre of attention in this story, he still seems three-dimensional and believable.

It’s quite an achievement all round, both technically and artistically - the compromises and easy options we’re so used to seeing from Hollywood are completely absent, and the ensemble cast is terrific. If you like your drama intelligent, witty and bitingly observant, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised by The Anniversary Party.

  Video
Contract

As we mentioned above, The Anniversary Party was shot on 24-frame digital video (on Sony DSR-500 cameras, which natively shoot 16:9) and then transferred to 35mm film for theatrical screening in the US. This DVD, however, may or may not have been transferred from a film print rather than directly from video. The fact that the running time, at 110 minutes, is shorter than the original 115 implies that this is the case - but remember, digital video can be given the 4% speedup treatment for PAL as well (Final Fantasy being a prime example). The end credit for “video mastering” implies that some work was done to make the video footage look more “filmic”, so it could be the source. If we were placing a bet, though, it’d be that this one comes from film - it just feels like it does. But then, there’s not a single film-like blemish to be seen throughout - not a speck. The jury’s still out on this one.

Either way, the movie’s video origins aren’t hard to spot if you know what you’re looking for; while the DSR-500 is a pretty decent DV camera, it’s not a patch on Sony’s HD cameras in terms of sheer quality, and that video-specific blur when fast motion is encountered can be spotted in the occasional scene. But for the most part, the images here are terrific; cinematographer John Bailey knows his stuff, shots everything with a film veteran’s skill, and lights the location set beautifully. If it didn’t say on the back cover that this was originated on videotape, most people would never guess.

Naturally 16:9 enhanced, the movie is presented slightly cropped at the top and bottom, the resulting aspect ratio a (nearly exactly) half-way compromise between the 1.78:1 camera ratio and the 1.85:1 of the theatrical prints. Colour saturation is excellent but natural, and the generally subdued lighting means that there’s very little that jumps out from the screen; detail is superb, crisp and accurate. And the video compression? Hey, this is a Roadshow disc. So it is, not surprisingly, perfect - there’s not a single unwanted artefact to be found throughout.

The Anniversary Party is stored on a dual-layered disc at a generously high bitrate; the layer change is placed mid-way through a conversation and is mildly distracting, mainly because of the interruption to the audio.

  Audio
Contract

It may be an indie-style production, but this one was paid for and released by New Line and so is naturally mixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, though the dialogue-centric nature of much of the audio means that the centre channel is your close personal friend for most of the running time. Still, there’s lots of effects work spread around the rest of the soundstage, and the terrific music score (by Michael Penn, an underrated solo artist who’s also worked with the equally film-friendly Aimee Mann) and various songs help to remind you that yes, you own six speakers. Don’t expect much subwoofer action, though; after all, the LFE track was designed for action movies, not to thunderously enhance a door slamming.

Dialogue is clear and legible throughout (and generally very well recorded, though there are a couple of problem scenes). A Dolby Surround audio mix for this movie does exist, but is not supplied on the Australian DVD; it’s no loss, as the 5.1 stream downmixes just fine.

  Extras
Contract

After all the talk of how this was shot on digital video, we were kind of hoping for a nice exhaustive making-of documentary loaded with juicy technical detail and various people with beards waffling on about how great DV is - but then, such things cost money, something that this production did not have a great deal of. What’s on the disc, though, is terrific, and everything that was on the US disc is here except for the DVD-ROM content. Oh, and a note to the authoring company who mastered this disc: your system clock is still 34 years fast!

Audio Commentary: Alan Cumming (in his native Scottish accent, rather than the clipped London one he uses in the movie) and Jennifer Jason Leigh take us through the movie in a chatty, fun commentary that’s also very tightly edited. No fits of giggles for these two; they sound like they know what they’re going to say and have an uncanny ability to time it to exactly match the scene, but a close listen reveals that it’s the result of careful tweaking. It’s not clear whether the two are in the same room as each other, but it doesn’t sound like they are. Unlike many edited-and-refined commentaries, though, this one flows very well, and there are few silent moments amid the wealth of behind-the-scenes information and character explanation.

Anatomy Of A Scene: A 21-minute mini-documentary from the Sundance Channel in the US (yes, pay TV is often actually worth paying for in the States!), this is a fascinating but all-too-brief look at the way a few scenes from the movie were put together, along with some interview material. There’s some fascinating stuff here, especially the glimpses we get of the untreated video source material. Don’t expect high-end video quality, though - the letterboxed 4:3 video, converted from NTSC, suffers from “herringbone” video noise throughout, very much like watching a TV channel in an area with less-than-optimum reception. This is not Roadshow’s fault, though; by all accounts the same video noise can be found on the region 1 version of the disc.

Theatrical Trailer: With a voice-over that’s WAY too loud, this trailer has an easy job to do - there are so many great lines and memorable moments throughout that you find yourself thinking, while watching the movie, “that would make a great bit for the trailer”. Most of the bits you picked are probably here. At a 16:9 enhanced 1.85:1 ratio, the trailer is presented with Dolby Surround audio.

Cast And Crew: Well, cast anyway. This is a collection of 14 exhaustive filmographies of the main cast. And, err, Jennifer’s dog. Some bio material would have been nice, but at least the lists are comprehensive.

Roadshow Press Play TV Ad: This fires up when you insert the disc, and fun as it is, mercifully it’s skippable - as are the copyright and movie-rating screens. Yay Roadshow. Note that the film rating on that opening screen is wrong, while the packaging is right; the movie was classified MA15+ in Australia.

  Overall  
Contract

Both wonderfully gifted actors, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming turn their hands to writing and directing with The Anniversary Party and manage to come up with an excellent movie, managing to be technically groundbreaking and budget-conscious simultaneously.

Roadshow’s DVD is a superb transfer of at times difficult source material, and it’s the equal of New Line’s original disc in content. While extra features are sparse, what’s included is well worth the time.

Highly recommended.


  • LINK: http://www.dvd.net.au/review.cgi?review_id=1370
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      And I quote...
    "If you like your drama intelligent, witty and bitingly observant, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised..."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-AV1020
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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