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Congratulations! It’s your anniversary! Throw a party, bring around a bunch of friends that couldn’t be more diverse if you tried, pop some pills, take a swim, look for the dog and cry your eyes out. Phew! That was only year six. Imagine what’s going to happen for your ten-year marriage celebration.

Movie

The Anniversary Party takes a pretty simple premise and tries to make an interesting story out of it. Joe and Sally are a loving couple who have only recently reunited after a break-up. They seem to be pretty happy on the surface but on the night of their sixth anniversary party they really make their true feelings known. Joe is a writer who has broken through with a screenplay while Sally is a once successful actress who is seemingly headed for the “where are they now?” files on late night TV. But six years is a bit of a milestone, don’t you think?

To help with the celebration the couple bring together some of their closest friends, work colleagues and unfriendly neighbours. This eclectic bunch take a little while to get going but once they’ve been stuffed full of beer, wine and ecstasy the party really hots up. Look out for an intense game of charades, a variety of personal tributes and a late night swim that throws up some unexpected twists and turns.

In all seriousness there’s really not much happening at the one time but the film hits several beats throughout which keep the pace moving along nicely. Written, produced and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, both actors hold down the lead roles pretty well. Cumming is quite an interesting sort, being cast mainly as the oddball of some fluffy comedies in recent times (read Spice World, Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, Josie & The Pussycats). This time he shows a decent range whilst still retaining that unusual quality which probably helped him into Hollywood in the first place. Leigh isn’t bad either, yet with a face that’s doomed for eternal sadness it’s hard to believe she’s actually happy even when she’s brimming from ear to ear. Nevertheless, the pair have a good chemistry going and are helped by a more than capable ensemble cast.

Target practice

Supporting the leading couple is B-movie specialist Parker Posey who continues her push for some decent roles in the future. There’s John C. Reilly who is probably one of the most underrated actors going around. Just ask Paul Thomas Anderson. Gwyneth Paltrow gets a gig as an up-and-coming actress who has just been cast the lead in Joe’s new film. She’s quite convincing  even though her character is just Liv from Duets with a touch more sex appeal. Kevin Kline does his usual routine, though a ballet scene between him and his daughter is quite enjoyable. Jane Adams put in a brilliant turn as the paranoid skinny chick who worries about her children and the babysitter throughout the film. She’s very good and quite funny at times. Calista Flockhart eat your heart out. Eat something at least.

Rounding out the more notable members of the ensemble cast is the eternally cute Phoebe Cates who has returned to acting after seemingly falling in a whole post-Drop Dead Fred. Good to see ya, Phoebes.

The first third of the film deals in depth with the characters and how they fit into the lives of Sally and Joe. When the time comes to bring on the tributes, each one of them has something to say. There’s the downright bizarre on behalf of Kevin Kline, the utterly scandalous thanks to some homosexual hints from Joe’s ex-fling and an excruciatingly awkward speech from the hated neighbours. It’s in this beat that the film really gets going, obviously designed to forget about any more character development and focus solely on the interaction. As mentioned earlier it’s not the most eventful film going around but there’s an innocence to it that seems to carry the flick the whole way. The fun to be had lies in watching the characters rest and play, even though the ending brings the mood crashing straight down.

There’s no hiding the fact that there are several holes in the plot and a few loose ends left untied. What happened to the dog? What about that kiss? And where the hell did everybody go? Everyone just seemed to disappear. No goodbyes at this party.

Overall the film is a decent night’s light entertainment, with some good performances and an easygoing storyline that’ll keep you wondering just how intimate this bunch can get.

Video

An aesthetic choice was made by Cumming and Leigh to shoot the whole thing on digital video. This was meant to create the feeling of being close to the action, presumably like someone filming a home movie. And it shows. There’s the obvious grain that comes with the format as well as very muted colours and shadows. Note the skin colours on the whole cast for example. In some instances throughout the film that colour shifts around a little, which can be distracting but is also part and parcel of shooting a movie entirely on video, even if it is the digital variety. Sharpness is still maintained pretty well but this isn’t the best looking transfer around, which is to be expected given the stock of choice. Presented in 1.85:1 and 16:9 enhanced this is probably the best image you’ll find for this film.

All drugged up and no place to go

One thing to note is that the Directors made a point about not using handheld cameras for a lot of the scenes so that they steered clear of a documentary, in-your-face style of storytelling. Well, they fooled me because there were several instances where the roaming camera is used and moved quite often. Check out the scene with Joe and Sally on the hilltop for a prime example. This was distracting only a couple of times, merely because the dialogue should have been more important that the subject moving around the frame all the time.

Audio

Included on the disc is a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which doesn’t really mean much with this dialogue-driven flick. It’s pretty much a front-heavy mix with only the occasional whisper from the surrounds to push the music. And there’s not a lot of punchy music to go along with the film so expect your woofer to go and play cards for the duration. The dialogue, more importantly, is clear at all times despite most of the cast being quite drunk and drugged during the last half of the film.

Extras

A low-budget film such as this is inevitably going to be hamstrung by limited funds but what we have here is at least of reasonable quality. The Sundance Channel documentary seems like a bit of promotional fluff at the start but soon gets into some interesting details about the production. This is where all that stuff about digital video comes in. Entitled, Anatomy Of A Scene, this little doco looks at the pivotal scene where the characters tribute Joe & Sally. Pretty good to look at, with the interviews with all the key players giving enough information to suffice.

The Audio Commentary with Cumming and Leigh is quite good, which isn’t surprising because these two did everything on this film except hold the boom pole. There’s a lot of information on the production and for the technically minded there’s some good insights into the methods and pitfalls of shooting a film on DV. Apparently this track is carefully edited but those responsible deserve to be congratulated because it’s relatively seamless. A good listen.

Rounding out the disc is a detailed cast & crew biographies section and the theatrical trailer.

Drop Dead Fred wasn't invited

Overall

The Anniversary Party is a good character study that doesn’t get too ambitious for its own good. The ensemble cast works together very well to create a party we’d all like to be invited to. The decision to shoot one digital video hasn’t harmed the transfer as much to distract from the story, while the audio does the job it needs to. There’s a couple of quality extras to give this low budget flick some meat and a pretty good DVD on the whole. Take a look and you may be pleasantly surprised.


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