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Birthday Girl

review by Zach B.

 

 

Rating: R (For Sexuality and Language)

Running Time: 90 minutes

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Kassovitz

Written by: Tom Butterworth and Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Jez Butterworth

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Behind-The-Scenes Featurette, "Somethin' Stupid" Music Video, Sneak Peeks

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Scene Selections (14 Scenes)

Released: August 13th, 2002

 

 

John (Ben Chaplin) is an English bankteller, who doesn't seem to have much of a life and is definently looking for company. He decides to get a mail-order bride (more like e-mail-order bride). Her name is Nadia (Nicole Kidman), and she slowly submerges herself in John's life. At first, there is some sense of akwardness between them. Nadia is supposed to speak English, but she doesn't. But the two soon learn to communicate through hanging out, gifts and sexual relations. Despite the mix-up and irregularties, the two do bond.

Of course, not everything can be rosy. Nadia's cousins, Alexi and Yuri (Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz), come for a surprise visit on Nadia's birthday. John is not very comfortable around them, so he asks them nicely to leave after they spend a few days with him. On the day they're supposed to leave, violence, blackmail and all sorts of crime-related trouble starts. Naturally, John's life takes a detour beyond what he's used to.

It's a bit hard for me to characterize a film like "Birthday Girl." It crosses and goes back before so many different lines, the film is a bit all over the place. The film does many right things, and it takes itself seriously. I respect all of that. The film has some soft moments that are very nice, and the comedic moments (such as miscommunication between Nadia and John, the ant problem) are nice touches. Still, there are some interesting dramatic moments too as John is betrayed, foced to go against his will for love and other kind of problems.

The film has an idea of what it wants to be, and that's good. It doesn't exactly get lost, but sometimes you can feel that it wanders just a tiny bit. In the end, I enjoyed "Birthday Girl," but when it comes down to everything, the film is vastly uneven. The opening is great, but toward the middle and climax, it dwindles just a tiny bit. The film is packed with great, engrossing bits and I have to admit I was intrigued in what was going to happen next, and how things between the characters were resolved. It never bores, and I think that's a sign of an entertaining movie. There are interesting twists, and some of it is a bit suspense-charged. The premise is also rather original.

Still, since the film is meant in a serious fashion, it's hard for me to label it as a guilty pleasure. The film hits its mark and pretty straightfoward in what it does. The production values are high here, and the directing from Jez Butterworth is very nice. The film is rather tight and cohesive, even if there is a possibility there's one or two many things thrown in for extra suspense and to add more to the movie. He has very nice shots that aren't bland, and the editing captures all of this with sweet fades and angles that capture everything that the viewer should see. It's nicely done.

Acting wise, it's all top notch here. Nicole Kidman does some fantastic work as Nadia. One should keep in mind this film was done before any of her major work that catapulted her into superstardom, and perhaps was released to capitalize on the success (the movie bombed and was panned by critics, so ignore what the back of the DVD box says). Kidman proves how great of an actress is. Her accent is rather authentic, but much of the role is pretty emotional and requires a lot of body language. Naturally, Kidman does such an interesting character with ease and again, it shows how talented she is. It may not be the greatest film ever, but it does show her acting skills.

The supporting performances are great too. Ben Chaplin is truly charismatic as a man who feels lonely, and how his life is turned upside down with the arrival of Nadia. Somehow he goes from a bank worker to a fugitive, and how he copes with the sudden changes, his chemistry with Kidman and his mannerisms are plain excellent. Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz also make nice villains who have some good screen time, and good moments of their own. So when it comes down to it, "Birthday Girl" is an interesting, but solid movie. It might be a bit unorthodox and pretty weird for some, but if you enjoy the actors or new things, it's worth checking out. Perhaps the film will gain a new life on video after its disastrous box office run.

 

"Birthday Girl" has an excellent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer going for it, and no one should be disappointed with the image quality here. It's near reference, actually. Detail is quite wonderful and the color saturation is mighty fine, be it the grays of the airport, the greens of England or whatever the open road may bring. Most impressive though is that the grain is not distracting and just how sharp the transfer is, it's really nice. The print is clean too, with only a blemish or piece of dirt here and there. The only major downsides I noticed are some shimmering and noise here and there plus some edge enhancment, but in all, all this good outweighs the tiny amount of bad.

 

Also pretty strong is the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track for the film. This track surely has its moments, but it is more subtle in its surround effects, almost as if things creep right up on you. Dialogue itself is very crisp and clear, sounding quite natural. The music - be it the pop-like fitting score from Stephen Warbeck or run-of-the-mill songs gives a nice presence. Still, the action packed scenes have a strong ambiance and offer fantastic surround use that spreads nicely through the channels, all with ample 5.1. Smaller stuff such as opening of suitcases, water running and cars zooming by. The mix is nicely balanced too, so nothing gets cluttered as you listen to what's going on. Solid stuff here. Also included are English subtitles, English closed captions, Spanish subtitles and a French language track.

 

Not much. The Behind The Scenes Featurette is your typical promotional feature, lasting nearly six minutes. Filled with your usual on the set footage, film clips and interviews with the key players in the film, it's somewhat humorous but in the end, pretty promo. Jez Butterworth, Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz are interviewed. The focus is on the story of the film and some unique aspects, mostly. Butterworth seems pretty engaged in it all, so I'm wondering if he opted not to do a commentary.

The Somethin' Stupid Music Video is also included with Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman. I guess this is included here because it has Kidman... this song was NOT done for the movie (for more Robbie Williams action, do check out his neat concert DVD). The video is in non-anamorphic widescreen. Rounding it all out are Sneek Peaks. Video trailers for "The Others," "The Shipping News," "Amélie," "In The Bedroom" and a Miramax plug for their most cherished films are included, plus a trailer for the upcoming "Gangs Of New York." I still don't understand why Disney hasn't been included trailers for most of their films lately (as in trailers for the ACTUAL movie you check out).

 

With a strong 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and a hot transfer, fans of "Birthday Girl" won't be disappointed with its presentation. However, the supplements are merely average and there isn't much of them to speak of. Despite that, if you missed this bomb in theaters and happen to enjoy unique thrillers or the work of Nicole Kidman, "Birthday Girl" is worth checking out.