(Movie portion of review written Oct. 24, 2001)
Amores Perros isn't a movie to watch when you're feeling depressed. I'd have to classify it as probably the most relentlessly downbeat movie I've seen in ages. It's also a strangely compelling and memorable film.
The film is made up of three separate sections, each centering in some way around in a car accident caused by two young hoodlums in over their heads with a dogfighting ring. The different stories lead up to and away from this central incident, with major characters overlapping in each others' stories, somewhat like Magnolia. There's the story of Octavio and Susana, trapped in a life of poverty and crime; Daniel and Valeria, monetarily richer but caught up in the chains of a failing relationship; and "El Chivo" and Maru, in which an old hit man re-examines who he is and what he does. All the stories deal in some way with love and what happens when it is denied or twisted.
On the one hand, I can't say that Amores Perros was exactly an entertaining experience. On the other hand, it was undeniably a movie that affected me and that won't easily be forgotten. I think that the film is in fact intended to discomfit the viewer, and does the job very effectively.
Part of the discomfiture comes from the subject matter: director Alejandro González Iñárritu peels off the surface over poverty (both literal and emotional) and pokes around in the sensitive flesh underneath, producing a picture that is very truthful about what it's showing... uncomfortably so. Do we want to be reminded of the ways that life can take an unexpected and unpleasant turn, as for Valeria, the beautiful model who is hit in the car accident? Do we want to confront the fact that tidy happy endings are a feature of movies, not real life? Probably not... but it may be a good thing for us to confront those ideas anyway, and that's what González Iñárritu does in his film.
The cinematography also aids in creating a disturbing effect on the viewer. The camera work in general is very closed-in, with a tight focus on the actors and their immediate surroundings, resulting in an overall effect that is distinctive, but not entirely successful. It does help to convey the oppressiveness of the situation as the characters are feeling it, but I found that the heavy use of extreme close-ups, particularly when combined with the use of a hand-held camera, made for a disagreeable, almost headache-inducing experience.
Though the film is fairly long (153 minutes), its tripartite structure provides an internal pacing that prevents the movie from bogging down. In retrospect, I feel that the first segment of the film is both a bit too long and too dark, compared to the other two; as the most viscerally awful section of the movie, it is hard to take right off the bat. (It's worth noting that the dogfights, though very realistic-looking, were created through camera tricks, makeup, and so on: no dogs were hurt in the making of the film).
A movie that features unlikable characters generally reveals that they have some redeeming qualities; or, alternately, provides some other characters with whom the audience can sympathize. Particularly in the first section of the film, Amores Perros thoroughly disregards this convention, with mixed results. Horrible people, behaving in horrible ways, or having awful things happen to them... without some sense that I cared about these characters, it was difficult to fully engage with the movie. This is, I think, a clear artistic decision on the part of González Iñárritu, and it does have its merit as the film unfolds. The relentlessly unsympathetic nature of the characters in the first two sections of the movie – where even characters who seem potentially likeable lose their veneer of decency under stress – makes a setup for the last section of the movie, in which what would otherwise seem a repellent character is revealed to have more depth than we might expect.
In fact, the dogs themselves are the most consistently likeable characters in the film. That's not to say that they're cute and nice; remember, much of the film features dogs trained for dogfighting. But unlike most of the humans in the movie, they are true to their own nature; even when forced to behave cruelly, as in the dogfights, we can see that they never become evil. Caught up in activities beyond their control, at the mercy of their owners (who are frequently severely lacking in mercy), the dogs suffer through no fault of their own.
I did a scene-to-scene comparison of the Signature Series release and the earlier release from Lions Gate, and as far as my eye can detect, the transfer is identical.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, as was the earlier release (even though the case on the earlier release didn't say that it was anamorphic, it was). Variations in lighting, exposure, and color tints are all used for effect at various points of the movie, so don't jump to any wrong conclusions about the color balance or the transfer quality. Overall, the colors seem accurate, and the contrast is handled well in both daylight and dark scenes. On the down side, the image is slightly grainy, and some scenes, though not all, have a fairly large amount of noise.
The original Spanish soundtrack is presented in Dolby 5.1, and appears to be identical in audio quality to that of the earlier release. The track features some excellent use of surround sound, putting the rear channels to good effect. However, I did find that the overall sound had a slightly muffled quality to it, which detracted from the audio experience. A French Dolby 2.0 dubbed track is also offered; there is no English dubbed track.
Optional subtitles are available in English, French, and English for the hearing impaired. Though the case states that Spanish subtitles are also an option, this is not true. (The earlier release did include Spanish subtitles, but since they were significantly different from what was being said on-screen, it's no great loss for them to have been dropped from this edition.) The subtitles are presented in yellow with a white border, and while they're not the most attractive subtitles I've ever seen, they're nicely legible, and are free from errors.
None of the audio options can be changed on the fly (neither the audio track nor the subtitles); it's necessary to go to the languages section in the special features menu to do so.
The main special feature is an audio commentary track from director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga Jordán. Seventeen minutes of deleted scenes are included, with the option to watch them with or without a commentary track from González Iñárritu and Arriaga Jordán. It's worth noting that if you want to listen to the commentary for the deleted scenes, you need to select the commentary track from the languages menu and then play the deleted scenes; it's not possible to switch on the fly. The commentary (both for the feature and the deleted scenes) is the same as on the earlier version, and deleted scenes are the same as well. The same subtitle options are available for the commentary as for the feature.
Two featurettes are included. The first is an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that offers interviews with the director and various members of the cast and crew; it's reasonably interesting, and it's new to the Signature Series DVD. Rather oddly, though, it replaces a longer, fifteen-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that was present on the earlier release. The second featurette is "Los Perros": a very informative six-minute piece on the dogs who were used in the film. This short featurette shows how the filmmakers managed to create scenes that looked both gruesome and realistic, while ensuring the complete health and safety of the dog actors. (No dogs were injured in the making of the film, and in fact we learn that no dog even touched another dog.) Both featurettes include English subtitles.
For miscellaneous material, we get three music videos, a photo gallery, and storyboards. The menus are easy to use, and I am pleased to report that the Signature Series release corrects several spelling errors that had appeared in the menus of the earlier release.
Compared to the earlier release, the Signature Series DVD doesn't make any improvement. The earlier release already included the commentaries, the deleted scenes, the same "Los Perros" featurette, and the same music videos. It also had a third featurette that's not included on the new DVD (a short piece on the making of the car crash scene). The only new material on the Signature Series DVD is a different (but shorter) making-of featurette, and the storyboards and photo gallery.
Bleak, yet strangely compelling, Amores Perros is certainly a memorable film, one that will stay with you long after the latest light popcorn flick has passed into oblivion. The DVD offers a satisfactory package, with an anamorphic transfer and 5.1 sound, though neither is as good as they could be. The Signature Series release doesn't offer any improvement in video or audio quality or bonus content over the earlier Lions Gate release, though, so if you already own Amores Perros, there's no reason to upgrade. However, if you haven't picked up a copy, I certainly recommend that you do so.