8 women (Seville, 2002) D: François Ozon, w/ Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert. Rating: NNNN
françois ozon gathers an eye-popping cast that includes six decades of French movie stars -- not just Deneuve and Huppert, but Danielle Darrieux, Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart and Virginie Ledoyen -- for this fabulously odd collision between an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery and a 60s pop musical. You haven't lived until you've seen the 60-ish Deneuve shakin' it as a backup singer in a ye-ye number.
Just to confuse everyone who thinks of her as the queen of existential dread, Huppert steals the picture as the repressed aunt, fighting hideous cat's-eye glasses and the least flattering green wardrobe imaginable to give a performance of comic fury. But she leaves plenty for the rest of the cast. French drag queens will be doing scenes from this picture for decades.
DVD EXTRAS: Seville has made an excellent transfer and added some very good extras, including a director/cast commentary, two making-of films and a couple of music videos of the numbers in the film. But the DVD loses a point simply because most of the extras haven't been subtitled, so the disc offers much more to the bilingual viewer than to the anglophone. I'm giving serious thought to ordering the French three-disc Deluxe Edition. Theatrical trailer, musical numbers access menu, English subtitles.
Beauty and the Beast (Criterion Morningstar, 1946) D: Jean Cocteau, w/ Jean Marais, Josette Day. Rating: NNNNN
Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast may be the finest live-action fairy tale adaptation ever. If you want proof, look at Cocteau's film side by side with the Disney musical and see how many times they turned to the French film as a visual model. Beauty was an early Criterion, number six in a catalogue now approaching 200.
Do we need an upgrade? This new version offers a high-definition transfer from a superior source that restores the original "chalkboard" titles, an additional critical commentary, a boatload of new extras and an expanded booklet. A few years ago I suggested to Philip Glass that his opera of Beauty, conceived to be performed with the film, would make a great alternate soundtrack on a laserdisc. It's here.
As to the transfer itself, the new source print is sharper than the old one, revealing much more detail within the Gustave Doré-inspired profusion in the scenes around the Beast's castle without losing the dark mystery of Henri Alekan's cinematography. Anyone who loves the film and has the old Criterion disc should consider the replacement. Anyone who doesn't have Beauty And The Beast -- well, what are you waiting for?
DVD EXTRAS: Two critical commentaries, Philip Glass opera, Cocteau's original theatrical trailer, restoration demonstration, TV interview with Alekan, Screening At The Majestic -- a 1995 documentary with cast and crew, booklet reprint of original story, original release program note by Cocteau, stills gallery. Optional English subtitles.
Angel: Complete Season One (20th Century-Fox, 1999) produced by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt, w/ David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter. Six discs. Rating: NNN
Angel (Boreanaz) was Buffy the Vampire Slayer's brooding vampire inamorata through the first three seasons of BTVS, then got his own series. The problem with Angel's first season is that it spends 12 or 13 episodes flopping around in search of an identity. Buffy starts with a very clear mission statement. It's Fast Times At Ridgemont High with a body count. Angel is vampire noir, a more nebulous proposition. It also operates from a different mythological base than Buffy's.
The early episodes are extremely uneven, likely because the writing and production team had to do double duty on Buffy and Angel. (Buffy Season Four, made concurrently, is the weakest of the five seasons of WB Buffy.) Coincidentally, Buffy Season Four and Angel Season One both suffer from an inability to establish the season's Big Bad until it's almost too late.
Fox's six discs offer good transfers but are very light on extras, even lighter than the Buffy boxes. I'm not sure they can act as a conversion experience for the uninitiated, but Buffy fans who aren't Angel fans are stuck with this season because of three crossover episodes, two of which, Five By Five and Sanctuary, tie directly into Who Am I?, This Year's Girl and The Yoko Factor from Buffy Season Four. Why is it no surprise that it took a guest star, Eliza Dushku as rogue slayer Faith, to jump-start this series?
DVD EXTRAS: Writer/producer commentary tracks, scripts for Five By Five and Sanctuary, production featurettes, booklet with episode guide. English, French, Spanish dubbed versions; English and Spanish titles. The discs indicate the presence of French subtitles, but they weren't on my copies.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Warner Home Video, 2002) D: Joel Zwick, w/ Nia Vardalos, John Corbett. Rating: NNN
The little movie that could, or the highest-grossing independent film of all time. This sweet-toned autobiographical romantic comedy stars scenarist Nia Vardalos, who developed the project as a one-woman show and plays a nice Greek-American woman who dares to date outside her ethnicity with WASP John Corbett.
It may not be a film for the ages, but it certainly works on its own terms. The array of ethnic comic performances boggles the mind -- you occasionally feel trapped in an endless version of Saturday Night Live's Greek diner sketch. There's been uncommon praise for Michael Constantine's father, but Andrea Martin's Aunt Voula is the gem.
Not much in the way of extras, though the three-headed commentary by director and stars is informative. It's dominated by Vardalos, who tells us more than we wanted to know about the making of the film, the names of the characters, how they relate to her family and family cameos within the film. Location notes: the building that houses John Corbett's apartment is on Lonsdale and the travel agency's on the Danforth.
DVD EXTRAS: Director/stars/writer commentary, theatrical trailer. English, French, Spanish and Greek subtitles.
Swept away (Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment, 2002) D: Guy Ritchie, w/ Madonna, Adriano Giannini. Rating: N
I revisited the ritchie family album to see if the overrated auteur's production of his wife's vanity remake of Lina Wertmüller's political satire/sex farce actually had anything to recommend it. An interesting supporting performance, perhaps? Some scintilla of wit? Some reason to exist beyond the relentless display of the star's six-pack abs and cellulite-free thighs? The message is "I am 44, I've had two kids and look what my will has wrought." It's oddly creepy, especially as Madonna's face hardens into middle age.
The plot? Spoiled rich woman is stranded on Mediterranean island with hunky leftish sailor she's abused. The tables are turned.
There are two principal problems in the remake. One, sexual politics in the 30 years since the original have received a lot more exposure. In her day, Wertmüller may have been nuts but didn't lack nerve. Today, Madonna's videos seem more transgressive than this film. Second, Madonna's character isn't an unlikeable spoiled rich woman -- she's hateful. After spending the first 40 minutes of the film listening to her abuse her husband, friends and servants, why should we care what happens to her? A grindingly awful 90 minutes.
DVD EXTRAS: An evasive director/producer commentary that doesn't really address any of the decisions made by the director, a short making-of featurette with the original television language bleeps intact, deleted scenes with commentary. English- and French-language versions and subtitles.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb
No rating indicates no screening copy