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Starring Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Antonio Banderas
Screenplay by Clancy Sigal and Diane Lake and Gregory Nava & Anna Thomas
Based on a book by Hayden Herrera
Directed by Julie Taymor

IN SHORT: point-to-point script with exceptional performances. [Rated Rated R for sexuality/nudity and language. 122 minutes]

We could put our traffic accident (2 broken neck vertebrae, spinal cord damage and physical brain damage) up against artist Frida Kahlo's (Salma Hayek, click for StarTalk) and we'd lose -- broken back, ribs, pelvis, collarbone, leg, crushed foot and an iron bar piercing her private parts in a time way before Percocet -- and this doesn't begin to cover the medical and personal travails faced by the artist in her lifetime. We give you this list because director Julie Taymor buries it in an animated sequence reminiscent of Tim Burton's work, in which agonizing pain and e.r. doctor care are drowned in distorted sound and visually represented as skeletons with red crosses on 'em. OTT, Taymor, a renowned stage director, delivers a film that is much easier to sit for, and a lot more enjoyable, than her debut (with her adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus).

Kahlo's battle with her pain is a vital part of her story. This slip, at least for us, brings to the fore the trouble filmmakers have packing an encyclopedia of a life into a compact two hours. It's hard to make a life look more than a serious of touch points than a "life," and director Julie Taymor does her best. Ditto the problem that focusing solely on the pain, and the overcoming of such, relegates most of these stories to the movie of the week bin. That Frida never ventures close to that cinematic dustbin is credit to star Hayek and director Taymor, who drive the story forward with such relentless force that it never wallows in the mundane.

To simplify: Frida Kahlo, crippled by her accident, hones her painter's eye while plastered into a body cast and then undergoing years (? the time sequence in this film is remarkably undefined) of therapy which nearly bankrupts her parents (Roger Rees and Patricia Reyes Spindola). She regains her ability to walk and, needing to know whether or not her paintings are good enough to get her work, pesters famed muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) for his opinion. Kahlo knows of Rivera from her school days. She's nicknamed the man "fatso" and he, of course, remembers that well. Both are ardent Communists, which makes Rivera's gig as muralist for the Mexican government hypocritical to others in the Party, and soon they are wed. Of course, Rivera is as big a womanizer -- he maintains a relationship with an ex-wife (Valeria Golino) even as he and Kahlo celebrate their first days together -- as he is a famed muralist, which is something Kahlo must deal with in her own way. There's a heavy dose of bisexuality unveiled in the film, once with clothing on (a tango sequence which is electrifying) and once without (set in Paris, suggesting an affair with Josephine Baker, and fairly gratuitous. Just the kind of thing we would have loved as a young slug).

The only problem is that the script is wildly uneven. Five hands (the four above plus Edward Norton, who hammered out the final product) put this thing together and Taymor rightfully keeps the focus on the husband and wife relationship that is far more interesting. The famed Rivera is ready to expand that fame outside of his native Mexico, Kahlo is willing to be by his side. Given a commission by Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) to do murals at the center of the Radio City complex, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a confrontation ensues when Rivera unexpectedly drops the face of Vladimir Lenin into his first work. It is a legendary story and shown exactly as it has passed down from one NBC employee to the next. You may choose your side.The film is even handed.

When the time comes for Kahlo's big break, an exposition in Paris, Rivera stays behind and nails some Hollywood actress. Coming into that relationship towards the middle of the film is Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), famed Communist philosopher and exile, on the run from the guns, or in this case the axe, of Stalin.

Yeah, it's a lot to pack in and, were there not "true story" elements behind it, we doubt that a story like this could have been made. But there are and it did and, at its core, the performances by Molina and Hayek are exceptional and riveting. You'll find Antonio Banderas and Ashley Judd in smaller parts as well. If you walk in with prior knowledge of Frida's career, there are details present that will sing to you. If not, you won't learn much about the why of her fame but you'll be exposed to enough of her work that you'll decide whether or not it is to your taste.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Frida, he would have paid . . .


This'll be remembered at the end of the year.

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