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Upside of Anger, The
There's an old saying that goes: "When you assume, you make an " Well, I probably don't need to tell you the rest. That saying, however, couldn't be more important than it is in Mike Binder's The Upside of Anger. Assumptions, whether we often realize it or not, are really good for nothing. They're usually not based on any type of factual information and they usually result in anger, sadness, or some type of despair. They are, basically, a great waste of time and energy. And in the case of Binder's film, they are what fuel the anger and resentment in an entire family.
Binder's film tells the story of a suburban housewife, played by Joan Allen, whose husband mysteriously disappears. She assumes that he's run off with his Swedish secretary while she's left to take care of their four girls (played beautifully by Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt) and pick up the pieces of their lives. Fueled by her husband's disappearance, she gets about as angry and resentful as you're ever going to see a woman on film. She strikes up a friendship with an aging former baseball star turned local radio DJ, and tries to make sure her girls go off to college and, maybe more importantly, ensure that they hate their father.
Sounds about ripe for your typical family melodrama, right? What makes The Upside of Anger much more than that are the capable hands of Writer/Director Mike Binder. In the hands of a lesser director, this film could easily derail into morbid despair or familial clichés. Binder's script, however, is so incredibly tight and realistic that The Upside of Anger feels more like a walk through the life of a struggling family than the film version of a cheesy soap opera. Everything about this film feels authentic and realistic. You'd swear you've had these exact conversations before with your own family. You've seen people act just like this, and you've overheard arguments exactly like this. It's a real testament to Binder's writing ability and his smooth directorial hands. Even the stranger characters (the strangest of all being Shep, who Binder chooses to play himself) seem grounded in reality. It's a beautiful thing to watch, and it makes you feel so much more for these characters.
The other thing that set's Binder's film apart from your typical familiar drama is his excellent cast. For those few filmgoers and critics who weren't quite convinced that Joan Allen is one of the best actresses working today, The Upside of Anger should do a good job of tipping the scales for them. Her work has always been consistently good, but this film is the one that will cement her place as one of Hollywood's most talented actors. Her bravura performance here is what makes The Upside of Anger one of the best films of 2005 so far, and what will hopefully earn her a nomination come Oscar® time. Her character's range of emotions and ability to turn on a dime are what really showcase her enormous talent. She is an absolute powerhouse and really controls the entire film, appearing in just about every scene.
And for those people who thought Kevin Costner was all washed up, The Upside of Anger should do a nice job of reminding why people fell in love with him in the first place. Playing a character very similar to his role in Bull Durham - an aging baseball player who loves a few drinks - doesn't seem to faze him as he brings an entirely nuanced performance and seems to hit all the right notes. He's laid back and quiet here. There's nothing really showy or boisterous about his character in The Upside of Anger, but when it's time to turn up the anger a notch, Costner knows exactly how to make the transition. Sure, he's had a few really bad missteps along the way (Waterworld, of course, being one of several big mistakes), but his work in this film puts Costner firmly back on the map. Open Range may have proved that he wasn't totally finished, but The Upside of Anger proves that he is, without a doubt, back in a big way.
The only thing that keeps the film from being a near-perfect mix of comedy and drama is a slightly unnecessary plot twist near the end of the film. If you're concerned about the film being spoiled for you, don't worry. I knew there would be a twist before the film even started and, I'll be completely honest, The Upside of Anger is so good at what it does for the first three-quarters that I totally forgot there would be a twist at all. It's just that engrossing. The twist, however, does seem somewhat unnecessary in retrospect. I understand what Binder tries to do with it and I understand his motivations, but the film could work just as well without the twist and, in the end, it seems glossed over and forgettable. This is, nonetheless, a minor quibble. I found The Upside of Anger to be an incredibly well made, entertaining film about what happens when we assume and what the resulting anger actually does to us as human beings with families and feelings. An outstanding cast, a tight, well-written story, and a very capable Writer/Director make The Upside of Anger one of the year's best films so far.
The Upside of Anger is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen format that looks excellent despite appearing a bit flat at times. Detail is actually quite good throughout the film, so that slight flatness in the image at times may be more a result of the intended suburban look of the film than an issue with this transfer. Fleshtones are accurate and color saturation is spot on. Season changes have a highly stylized look in the film and each season's colors shine brightly and vividly. The hazy, blueness of the winter scenes are a particularly beautiful aspect of this transfer. Edge enhancement, and other digital artifacts, never appear to be an issue, but there is a small amount of grain visible from time to time. Lighting and shadows are well delineated, and black levels are deep and rich. Aside from the negligible flatness of the image and the slight amount of grain present, this is a superb transfer that ranks up there with some of New Line's best.
The audio on this disc is offered in DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0 formats that each sound just fine. The Upside of Anger doesn't exactly have a very dynamic soundtrack, but Alexandre Desplat's score comes across beautifully on this track. My track of choice is the DTS 5.1 mix for a slightly fuller feel and a bit more ambience, but the differences between it and the Dolby Digital 5.1 track are barely noticeable. All tracks, however, are well balanced and provide plenty of intricate subtlety to Desplat's score. There's not much surround action to be found in this soundtrack, but the rear channels do give the score a bit more power and help to provide a nicely enveloping soundstage. The one major issue I found with the audio presentation on this disc are the volume levels. Dialogue, while always discernable, is much too low at times. For a dialogue-heavy film like The Upside of Anger, low volume levels (and slight level fluctuation) can be a frustrating thing to combat. Fortunately, the problem never becomes overwhelming and the tracks still manage to provide an adequate aural experience.
While this disc is not considered one of New Line's Platinum Series releases, there are still a few noteworthy extra features included. The first of which is a commentary track with Writer/Director Mike Binder and Actor Joan Allen. Former film critic (and current filmmaker) Rod Lurie moderates the track. In addition to being the Director of The Contender and Deterrence, Lurie is also Binder's close friend, and their friendship lends to the breezy feel of the commentary. Joan Allen is the quietest of the three throughout, but she still manages to drop in some excellent tidbits about the shoot and the process of creating her character. Lurie is an excellent host as he steers the conversation nicely from anecdotes from the set to more specific analysis of the film and even to some of Binder's major influences. Binder is open and honest about what he likes and dislikes about his film, and even discusses how similar The Upside of Anger feels to Ang Lee's The Ice Storm - a film that Binder clearly loves and says he "could watch over and over again." This is, easily, one of the most interesting and informative commentary tracks I've had the pleasure to hear in quite a while.
Also included on this disc is an approximately 30-minute featurette called "Creating The Upside of Anger." While it may follow the usual conventions of your typical EPK-style featurette - interviews with all the major players and behind-the-scenes clips mixed in with clips from the film - this feature actually has some depth to it. The interviews are insightful, the footage from the set is interesting, and the film clips are kept to a minimum. Overall, this is a slickly produced and informative featurette that makes a nice companion to the film itself.
There are also eight deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mike Binder included on this disc. The scenes are nothing really groundbreaking, but they do include an interesting side plot about some creepy Joan Allen nightmares. Binder does a fine job of explaining just why the scenes were ultimately cut from the film. He even tells us which scenes he particularly likes and dislikes. The film may be better off without these scenes, but their inclusion on this disc is certainly a welcome addition.
Finally, we have the theatrical trailer for The Upside of Anger and trailers for several other New Line releases including The Laws of Attraction, Pleasantville, About Schmidt, and a few others.
During their commentary track, moderator Rod Lurie discusses with Writer/Director Binder just how quickly the four young actresses (Christensen, Wood, Russell, and Witt) in The Upside of Anger signed on once they heard that they'd get to work with Joan Allen. Smart girls, to be sure, as they obviously know how talented the actress is and just how well she'd deliver in the film. Allen's performance is sure to be one of this year's best and is already receiving some well-deserved, early Oscar® buzz. In addition to Allen's work in the film, we get to see the return to glory of Kevin Costner in a role that he completely inhabits. He makes it his own and shows just why he was, at one time, one of Hollywood's most popular (and best) actors. A great film all around, The Upside of Anger is certainly one of the early bright spots of 2005.
Although New Line didn't brand this disc with their Platinum Series label, they did see fit to provide their usual top-notch audio-visual presentation and a very nice set of extra material. The featurette and deleted scenes are great additions to the film, but the commentary track alone is worth the price of admission. Simply having a film as good as The Upside of Anger on DVD would be reason enough to purchase this disc, but the inclusion of some excellent extra material easily makes this a highly recommended release.