Once Upon A Time In Mexico (Columbia/TriStar, 2003) D: Robert Rodriguez, w/ Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp. Rating: NNNN
for a brief, improbable moment at the end of September, two of the five top-grossing films in North America starred Johnny Depp. In each, he gives a performance marking another step in his journey from oddball indie icon to lower Brandovian weirdo. Depp steals Once Upon A Time In Mexico from star Antonio Banderas with his baroque character work as a bent CIA agent who may be engineering the overthrow of the Mexican government.
This, the third of Rodriguez's Mariachi films, adds to the suspicion that the director has a wizardly facility but not much to say. He knows how to make movies fast and cheap and imbues them with tremendous energy, but he has no reason to make them other than his own exuberance.
The excellently prepared DVD includes a talk by Rodriguez on the digital future, one of the director's 10-minute film school featurettes on how to do things cheap, a lesson in how to cook that pork dish that Depp's character loves and an informative commentary.
EXTRAS Director's commentary, 10-Minute Flick School, 10-Minute Cooking School, production featurettes, a short history of the the Mariachi character, DVD-ROM games. English and French versions and subtitles. (No Spanish version? I mean, you'd think....)
Swimming Pool (Seville, 2003) D: François Ozon, w/ Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier. Rating: NNNN
Jet Lag (TVA, 2002) D: Danièle Thompson, w/ Jean Reno, Juliette Binoche. Rating: NNN
swimming pool is an enigmatic drama from the director of 8 Femmes and Under The Sand, with Charlotte Rampling as an English mystery writer who borrows her publisher's house in the south of France only to have her work interrupted by the arrival of her publisher's slutty French daughter (Ludivine Sagnier). Or is she? Ozon manipulates our perception of the film almost entirely through his shifty use of point-of-view shots. Jet Lag is a simpler by far. Jean Reno is a hypertensive chef trying to get to a funeral before going to the U.S. for the launch of his gourmet food line. Juliette Binoche is trying to get to Mexico for a vacation and to escape from an abusive relationship. They get stuck together at DeGaulle Airport during one of those rare French transport strikes and spend a dozen life-changing hours together.
It's for fans of the stars, worth seeing for Reno's against-type work and for that moment when Binoche, playing a heavily made up beautician, comes out of the shower and suddenly looks like Juliette Binoche again.
Here's a rare instance where the Canadian issues are superior to the Americans', who get bare-bones versions of these minimally cast chamber dramas. Of course, if you want to check the extras on TVA's issue of Jet Lag, you'd better speak - or at least understand - French. All the extras, including director Danièle Thompson's commentary and the short making-of featurette, come from Studio Canal's French issue and are unsubtitled.
Swimming Pool's extras aren't quite that elaborate: the trailer and the electronic press kit (EPK) presented as interviews. If you really want to dive into Swimming Pool, there's a two-disc collector's edition just out in France, with commentaries and items like the Cannes press conference.
EXTRAS Swimming Pool: deleted scenes, theatrical trailer, French and English EPKs. English and French versions, optional French subtitles. Jet Lag: Director's commentary, making-of, gag reel that makes you wonder if there's anything on set that doesn't crack Binoche up, cast and crew interviews. French with French and English subtitles. Just to confuse things, the English market issue doesn't list any extras on the cover.
The Best Of Soul Cinema: Hell Up In Harlem, Foxy Brown, Coffy, Cooley High, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (MGM, 1972-1990) Rating: NNN
Superfly (Warner, 1972) D: Gordon Parks Jr., w/ Ron O'Neal. Rating: NNNN
Timed to coincide with martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, MGM's new reduced-price box sets, The Best Of Soul Cinema and The Sidney Poitier Collection, offer one new release between them - Poitier's For Love Of Ivy, from 1968, to go with his Oscar-winner, Lilies Of The Field, and the Virgil Tibbs Trilogy, In The Heat Of The Night, They Call Me Mister Tibbs and The Organization. The Soul Cinema box is peculiar. It might have included Across 110th Street or Cotton Comes To Harlem, two of the best films thrown up by the blaxploitation trend of the early 70s. Instead, they have Keenen Ivory Wayans's blaxploitation pastiche comedy I'm Gonna Get You Sucka and Larry Cohen's Hell Up in Harlem, the sequel to Black Caesar, which MGM has in its catalogue but didn't include in the box. Go figure.
Fun titles, and the Jack Hill/Pam Grier films Coffy and Foxy Brown, which I hadn't seen in ages, go a long way toward showing why Quentin Tarantino likes Hill so much: they share a sadistic streak.
On that subject, there's a box due this week from Concorde that includes Grier's four women-in-prison films, two of them directed by Hill.
More importantly, especially since Ron O'Neal has just died, Warner brings us a new special edition of Superfly, on DVD for the first time, with documentaries, period interviews with O'Neal and composer Curtis Mayfield and a scholarly commentary.
If Across 110th Street is the masterpiece of blaxploitation, Superfly defines the genre in terms of style, core narrative and setting - the hustler outside the law, in the mean streets of urban America, turning the American dream inside out. And nobody's miraculously improved Superfly the way some cheap films of this period have been. It always looked like it was shot in the grittiest corners of Manhattan at that unmagic hour that really shows every rat dropping in every alley. What makes up for that is the controlled fury of its narrative, its unshakable fashion sense and the finest song score of the era.
EXTRAS Best Of Soul Cinema: theatrical trailers, director commentaries on Hell Up In Harlem, Coffy and Foxy Brown. Superfly: critical commentary, interviews with Curtis Mayfield and Ron O'Neal, making-of documentary. English and French-language version, English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Spellbound (Columbia/ TriStar, 2003) D: Jeffrey Blitz. Rating: NNNN
here is a very entertaining documentary about finalists in the U.S. National Spelling Bee, with character portraits and a good deal of footage of 12-year-olds screwing up their faces while their brains try to work out how to spell "logorrhea." And that's not the toughest word. By the late championship round, you'll be thinking, "Come on, they're just making words up now." It's a little surprising that this sweet-toned film, with its rainbow coalition of engaging kids pursuing an obsessive but non-trash-talking sport, didn't win the Oscar (it was nominated) over the politically contentious Bowling For Columbine. Good rent with some fun extras, like a Where Are They Now? gallery of the competitors and an interactive hangman game.
EXTRAS Filmmakers' commentary, theatrical trailer, deleted scenes. French subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, January 27
The Critic: The Complete Series (Columbia/TriStar, 1994) All 23 episodes and the short "webisodes" on a two-disc set of the short-lived animated series starring Jon Lovitz as Jay Sherman, the poor man's Roger Ebert.
Capturing The Friedmans (Alliance Atlantis, 2003) Andrew Jarecki's complex exploration of a family caught up in a child molestation scandal. Check before you buy - the American edition from HBO Home Video is a two-disc SE and may take eclipse the Alliance edition.
Thirteen (20th Century Fox) Or why parents have nightmares. With Holly Hunter as the parent.
The Secret Lives Of Dentists (Columbia/TriStar) Campbell Scott and Hope Davis star in a film that was very highly regarded by the 47 people who saw it theatrically.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb