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    John Cassavetes: Five Films Blu-ray Review

    Blu-ray Criterion

    Oct 20 2013 12:56 PM | Matt Hough in DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
    John Cassavetes pretty much defined the independent film movement in America during the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Gritty, uncompromising, bold: his films look like no others and while many may find them indulgent, messily composed, and sometimes uniquely unsatisfying, once seen they’re hard to forget. John Cassavetes: Five Films brings together five of the director’s independent feature projects into one box. While the later pictures are more professional in look and tone than the first two, all five are inimitably the property of their creator.

    Title Info:

    • Studio: Criterion
    • Distributed By: N/A
    • Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
    • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1, 1.66:1, 1.85:1
    • Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
    • Subtitles: English SDH
    • Rating: PG, PG-13, R
    • Run Time: 10 Hr. 38 Min.
    • Package Includes: Blu-ray
    • Case Type: cardboard disc holders inside a cardboard case
    • Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
    • Region: A
    • Release Date: 10/22/2013
    • MSRP: $124.95

    The Production Rating: 3/5

    Shadows – 3/5

    Three African-American siblings are finding the mean streets of New York City often daunting to their personal and professional happiness. Hugh (Hugh Hurd) is eking out a living as a singer in low class dives out of the city, humbled when the music director cuts his solo to one chorus so he can introduce a line of low-rent showgirls. Ben (Ben Carruthers) is palling around the city streets with two irresponsible cronies (Tom Allen, Dennis Sallas) but seems aimless and disconnected. Lelia (Leila Goldoni) is blossoming into womanhood and being pursued by a white man (Anthony Ray) whom brother Hugh disapproves of.

    John Cassavetes’ Shadows must have seemed revolutionary in 1959. A miniscule budgeted, completely improvised character study filmed in 16mm in the streets of New York with a tiny crew, it had none of the slickness or polish of a studio production. Like Italian Neo-realism and the French New Wave, this film strived for a rough, blistering look and feel of the raw, brutal streets, and it certainly achieved those aims. With no interest in telling a formal story or exploring characters in any real depth, the filmmaker and his movie jump gracelessly from one awkward scene to the next irritating us with mostly charmless, needlessly garish behavior. The tone is right, and the look is to be savored, but the pity is that the director couldn’t round up a more talented bunch of improvisational actors to take the film’s gritty mise en scène and spice it up with some interesting conversation and more believable characters. Though the movie’s dialog was famously improvised and allegedly not based on any scripted talk, the bonus features reveal that between the first and second shoots (a year apart), Cassavetes did indeed fashion a script which explains why the film’s overwhelmingly best scene (the morning after confessional of Lelia’s virginal deflowering) plays so much better than so many other moments in the movie. This is raw, lacerating stuff, and it feels real. So many other moments of the film, despite being filmed directly on the streets and on makeshift sets at Cassavetes’ workshop, seem awkward and painfully strained with self-conscious conversations that never seem true-to-life (case in point: the actors often rely on repeating the names of the characters they‘re talking to over and over in the same scene. Who does that in real life?) The film’s very uniqueness is often its downfall since the actors’ improvisations don’t often jell, or, if there’s a spark of truth or a doorway to decent discussion introduced at a moment in their free-wheeling speech, it isn’t pursued thus making the movie seem more surface edgy rather than penetratingly revelatory. Lelia Goldoni has both good and bad moments, perhaps exemplifying that the year’s break between shoots helped her gain some experience and polish. Anthony Ray’s Tony is the film’s most affecting character, alternately tantalizing and tender toward Lelia and genuinely devastated by her dismissal of him. Rupert Crosse, later to earn an Oscar nomination for his work in The Reivers, has some good moments as Hugh’s determined manager.


    Faces – 3.5/5

    After his fourteen year marriage shows signs of atrophying, businessman Richard Forst (John Marley) picks up a young, glamorous prostitute Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) in a bar and enjoys her vivacity and playfulness, aspects which had long ago faded from his relationship with his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin). The next morning, Richard tells Maria he wants a divorce. Shaken, Maria, out for a night of fun in a discothèque with her girl friends, brings home young, blond playboy Chet (Seymour Cassel), but while she’s sexually aroused by him, her feelings of failure about her crumbling marriage make her miserable.

    Though there is obvious improvisation going on in these many elongated scenes, director John Cassavetes takes a script credit for the film signifying that there was indeed a story framework that he was attempting to bring forward. (In fact, he earned an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay.) The sequences do indeed tend to go on far past their effectiveness (Cassavates’ obviously indulging the wonderful actors he has at his disposal and letting them fly), and he also allows too much raucous laughter erupting from nowhere and for no purpose. (The continual laughter from all of the principals is quite off-putting.) On the other hand, he shows the insidious sexual jealousy in bookended scenes with both the prostitute and her two johns and the hustler and his four ladies competing for attention that make the scenes embarrassingly riveting. He also explores the different reactions of the sexes to the end of the marriage: Richard fosters no guilt or regret for spending the night with his prostitute. Maria is wracked with miserable guilt and extreme humiliation. And the in-your-face camerawork that had been so stunning in Shadows is back in all its glory here, a rather explosive, coruscating examination of these souls which the triumphant acting made all the more impressive since this came long before Steadicam made such shooting so effortless. Foremost among the great performances is John Marley’s as the frustrated Richard. His emotional highs and lows during the picture make this clearly his greatest-ever performance. No less impressive is Lynn Carlin as the despondent Maria. Her devastating work earned her an Oscar nomination, an honor that also went to Seymour Cassel’s work as the charming hustler Chet. Though billed second, Gena Rowlands has less to do as the alluring Jeannie, but she’s stunningly beautiful and has one really terrific moment when Richard insults the breakfast she’s so proud of having cooked. Obviously, his feelings that her talents lie in a room other than the kitchen are thoughtless and hurtful, and it all registers beautifully on Rowland’s eyes and face.


    A Woman Under the Influence – 3.5/5

    Teetering on the edge of a breakdown where conscious reality is only an occasional visitor, Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) is in definite need of institutional help. But blue collar husband Nick (Peter Falk) thinks his wife is merely eccentric and with care can snap out of her extreme behaviors, so he resists sending her away, dealing with her with firm-handed love until his frustrations at her deteriorating condition drive him to have her committed. After six months, Mabel returns, but conditions in the household with three young children, the loving but aggressive Nick, and an ill-advised welcome home gathering headed by Nick’s domineering mother (Katherine Cassavetes) who never hesitates to state her opinions undo some of the recovery Mabel has achieved.

    Like his previous films, the movie offers a combination of scripted dialogue and improvisation, and because some of it is extemporaneous, director Cassavetes lets scenes run on way too long waiting for something gritty and real to happen. It usually does, but the long waits for those pearls of improvisational brilliance to occur stretch the film’s running time to an untenable length. It takes half the film to get Mabel committed, something the audience can see is necessary within the first twenty minutes, and the long scenes with Nick’s job buddies at a spaghetti breakfast, a birthday party where Mabel goes berserk, and the wrongly considered welcome home celebration are excruciating in their elongation giving the actors field days to perform but making the audience endure mounds of off-putting tedium. (In contrast, a day at the beach where Nick tries to show signs of dedicated fatherhood seems unfocused and underdeveloped.) The film is certainly slicker and more of a piece than Shadows or Faces, but there is still that unwieldy focus with the hand held cameras and abrupt cuts in strange places which puts the stamp of a independent non-union production on the movie completely. Both Rowlands (who was Oscar-nominated and won the Golden Globe) and Falk (who should have been) have moments of genius during the two and a half hours, and they’re never less than fully committed to these roles even when the writing and direction let them down.


    The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – 2.5/5

    Inveterate gambler/strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) no sooner pays off one large debt than he racks up another one, this time $23,000 which a local L.A. mob is pressuring him to repay immediately. In desperation, he accepts a deal to have the debt erased if he kills a Chinese mobster (Soto Joe Hugh) who’s heavily guarded by his youthful gang members. Though an obvious suicide mission, Cosmo pulls off the murder, but he must kill a number of other witnesses in the process leaving a bloodbath behind which rouses great attention by the LAPD. The big boss (Morgan Woodward) decides for their own safety, Cosmo himself must be eliminated, something the hard-working Cosmo simply can’t let happen.

    Cassavetes’ script is full of holes and unsatisfying loose ends, and the picture’s most intense scenes (the murder of the Chinese mobster and a later shootout where Cosmo is the target) are handled rather bumblingly (the sneaking in and out of the Chinese man’s estate is completely lacking in tension or conflict, and Seymour Cassel’s character Mort is rubbed out while the camera is focused on something else entirely and not as interesting or pertinent). There is obvious pride taken in the lavish attention paid to the strip club scenes featuring a pathetically untalented singer/comic (Meade Roberts) and the uninspired “numbers” the strippers are trying to pull off (the girls are fresher looking and lovelier than girls generally are portrayed in this kind of joint), but any efforts at character building with them or with anyone else apart from Ben Gazzara’s character fall completely flat. Gazzara himself is believable as a hard working/unlucky in life mug, but he engages in a couple of obviously improvised scenes (one with the mother of his girl friend, another near the end as he must persuade his employees to go on with the show) that go nowhere and take up lots of time.


    Opening Night – 2.5/5

    Struggling with her leading part in the new play A Second Woman trying out in New Haven, temperamental star Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) rails against a role that she fears will define her as a middle aged actress. The accidental death of an obsessed fan (Laura Johnson) outside the stage door drives Myrtle to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Nothing her director (Ben Gazzara), her leading man/ex-lover (John Cassavetes), playwright (Joan Blondell), or producer (Paul Stewart) can do seems to keep Myrtle on an even keel as she spirals into hallucinations of the dead girl haunting her and into a drunken spree on the day of her opening night in New York.

    The film seems to have been made by people who don’t know much about the theater (except many of the participants are theater professionals who should have known better). With all of Myrtle’s unpredictable shenanigans on stage which wreck the play, there is never any mention of an Equity lawsuit against her, the playwright threatening to pull the rights if the play isn’t respected, no mention of an understudy prepared to go on when the star doesn’t show up for opening night. It’s a very ill-written, naïve screenplay, and with Cassavetes showing endlessly prolonged scenes from this non-existent play to show us Myrtle’s on-stage behavior, it seems like the film is never going to end. The film’s theme of ageism isn’t very fresh (All About Eve dealt with these very same theatrical and real life issues within a brilliantly literate script and without any scenes going on well past the point of endurance), and it’s clear the actors are improvising especially in the opening night performance scenes which climax the movie. It’s another all stops out performance for Gene Rowlands who can play unhinged and drunk and helpless and tough about as well as any actress who’s ever lived, but it’s an exhausting performance with little subtlety. No one else gets much time to display what he or she can do though Joan Blondell shines in her few scenes as the aging playwright who’s living the existence that terrifies the star.

    Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NA

    Shadows - 3.5/5

    The film underwent an extensive restoration in 2002 to bring it back from the brink of oblivion, but decisions were made then that certain artifacts (some dirt, hairs) would be retained to keep the film from looking untrue to its 16mm streetwise origins. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. ). The hairs, occasional specks, and a few minor scratches are the same ones seen in previous Criterion releases, but the grayscale is pleasing for a film of this age and considering the quality of the materials at hand. Blacks aren’t very deep, of course, but contrast has been applied to give the film its best home video incarnation. The film has been divided into 11 chapters.


    Faces – 3.5/5

    The film was shot in 16mm and blown up for commercial projection, framed at 1.66:1 which is replicated here in 1080p using the AVC codec. Though most of the film features naturally heavy grain, there are a few shots throughout the film that are not grainy due to being shot on different film stock, and thus don’t match the rest of the film’s softer, gauzy look at all. The hairs, black and white scratches, and occasional dirt specks have been retained. Grayscale is consistent through the film’s overlong running time and features pure whites but only moderately deep blacks. The film has been divided into 18 chapters.

    A Woman Under the Influence – 4/5

    The film is framed at its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Due to the inconsistent focus pulling, sharpness can ebb and flow depending on the scene. That isn’t the fault of the transfer, but it does mean there are sharpness inconsistencies throughout. Color can sometimes look a little dated, but it’s consistently hued with believable flesh tones. Black levels are usually fine but some low lit scenes bring out more grain in the picture and reduce detail in the shadows. There is some momentary flashing in some patterned dresses of the period. The movie has been divided into 22 chapters.

    The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – 4/5

    The film’s theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Apart from a few dimly lit scenes which feature murky black levels and crushed shadow detail, the film looks very professional and almost like a Hollywood studio product. Color is brash and deeply hued, and flesh tones are rich and realistic. Sharpness is excellent except when the camera operator (there were several on the picture) doesn’t focus the camera well ending up with soft shots which alternate with sharp ones within the same scene. The 1976 version of the movie has 18 chapters while the 1978 reedit has 16.

    Opening Night – 4.5/5

    The film’s theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. By far the best looking of the films in this box set, the transfer is spotlessly clean and beautifully sharp. Color is rich and realistic throughout including appealing skin tones. Blacks may not be at their deepest, but they’re very good. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.

    Audio Rating: 3.5/5

    Shadows – 3/5

    The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is pretty much the same low tech marvel it’s always been. There is some light flutter to be heard, but otherwise hiss is kept at bay, but the listener will easily be able to ascertain which lines were recorded directly and which were ADR produced. The bluesy saxophone riffs of Shafi Hadi come through with all their low fidelity impact intact.

    Faces – 3/5

    The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) audio mix is likely true to its original recording, but nevertheless this mix features light hiss and volume levels that vary slightly throughout the film. There’s a rather dry, shrill timbre to the sound also that isn’t very appealing, and the sequences which utilize extensive ADR are very noticeable.

    A Woman Under the Influence – 3.5/5

    The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix offers decent fidelity for a low budget production. There is some intermittent hiss in the second half of the film, and the ADR moments do have a drier and more vapid tone than the ones with direct recording. Dialogue is clear throughout and is not overpowered by the occasional musical passages or the sound effects.

    The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – 4/5

    The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) audio mix is very typical of a low budget movie from this era. Some of the amateur actors hired for the film mumble their lines (which weren’t looped later on) so dialogue is occasionally swallowed. The music doesn’t have much zip to it and sound effects are hit and miss in terms of fidelity (one gunshot is exceedingly loud, others not as much). Still, age-related artifacts like hiss or crackle are not present at all.

    Opening Night – 4/5

    The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix does a good job of representing the mono soundtracks of the 1970s, especially in a low budget production. There are no age-related artifacts to interfere with hearing the dialogue as spoken, and the occasional music cues and sound effects don’t intrude on hearing the words, either.

    Special Features: 5/5

    Shadows

    A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (3:21:16, HD): this 2000 documentary on the life and work of the actor-producer-writer-director tells just about everything one would ever need to know about the man. With comments by those who knew him and worked with him and lots of film clips, this is the definitive examination of the man’s creative output.

    Lelia Goldoni Interview (11:41, HD): the actress talks on her memories of working with Cassavetes and remembers how the film took shape over its two year production period.

    Seymour Cassel Interview (4:29, HD): a 2004 interview features the actor who made a cameo appearance on the movie but assisted behind-the-scenes as associate producer. He speaks about how he met Cassavetes and came to work on the movie.

    Workshop Footage (4:17, HD): rare silent 16mm footage at Cassavetes and Burt Lane’s acting workshop as the film was beginning to take shape. A couple of actors who ended up in the finished film can be glimpsed briefly.

    Restoration Demonstration (11:04, HD): it’s actually a documentary on the restoration of the film at UCLA by Ross Lipman showing how the movie was rescued from extreme deterioration by the dedicated film historian and how decisions were made about how the finished product should look.

    Galleries: 67 snapshots of behind-the-scenes activity during filming and during recording sessions for the music soundtrack to the picture. There is also a separate gallery for domestic and international posters for all of the films in this set.

    Theatrical Trailer (2:53, HD)

    Faces

    Alternate Opening (17:57, HD): Featuring some juxtaposed scenes and some bar footage not in the finished film, it actually makes a better beginning to the film than the one which was subsequently used.

    Cinéastes de notre temps Interviews (48:22, HD): Two interviews with John Cassavetes filmed three years apart by a French television crew make for engaging viewing. Part I was filmed in Hollywood in 1965 after postproduction work had begun on Faces. Part II was filmed in France in 1968 after a screening of the finished work.

    Making Faces (42:00, HD): is a 2004 collection of interviews with Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, Lynn Carlin, and cinematographer Al Ruban discussing the lengthy production and editing of the film and their delight in its recognition and success.

    Lighting and Shooting (12:02, HD): an interesting compendium of text pages detailing the equipment used in the film’s production, and then cinematographer Al Ruban text-narrating various scenes from the film discussing the film stocks and lights used in the actual shooting.


    A Woman Under the Influence

    Audio Commentary: sound man and composer Bo Harwood and camera operator Mike Ferris speak from the heart about their love for the film offering some telling comments about the production and the cast and crew that made the film.

    Gena Rowlands/Peter Falk Interview (17:15, HD): the two old friends meet up in 2004 to share memories of working on the film (and Falk on his first experience with Cassavetes on Husbands) and its reception on first release.

    John Cassavetes Interview (1:14:47): film historian Michel Ciment interviews Cassavetes after the release and praise for the film in 1975. This is an audio-only supplement.

    Production Galleries: five step-through galleries of behind-the-scenes shots made during the film’s production.

    Theatrical Trailer (2:59, HD)
    The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

    Ben Gazzara/Al Ruban Interview (18:21, HD): the star and the producer of the film are interviewed separately in 2004 sharing memories of the shoot and discussing what the meaning of the film was personally for the writer-director.

    John Cassavetes Interview (16:15): film historians Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson conduct an audio-only 1978 interview in which the director discusses where the idea of the film came from and his notions about the miseries of working in the film business for young filmmakers at that time.

    Stills Gallery: twenty-five behind-the-scenes photographs are offered in a ste-through format.

    Theatrical Trailer (2:00, HD)

    Opening Night

    Gena Rowlands/Ben Gazzara Interview (22:39, HD): the two old friends share memories of making the film and swap stories about working for Cassavetes on numerous projects (though this was their first one together for him). They also have heady words of praise for the other cast and crew members.

    Al Ruban Interview (7:50, HD): the producer and director of photography of the film shares memories of working on the project especially the time when he quit the production and had to be lured back by Ben Gazzara.

    John Cassavetes Interview (29:01): this audio interview conducted with historian Michel Ciment touches on the film’s themes, the difficulties in getting it made, and its reception here and in Europe. This was recorded in 1978.

    Theatrical Trailers (7:21, HD): two theatrical trailers are presented in montage form.

    Eighty-Page Booklet: contains the cast and crew lists for all five films, a number of tinted stills, introductions for all five films by their director, individual analytical essays on each film by, respectively, Gary Giddins, Stuart Klawans, Kent Jones, Phillip Lopate, and Dennis Lim, interviews with the director by Judith McNally, critics from Cahiers du cinema and Postif, and celebratory essays by Charles Kiselyak, Martin Scorsese, Elaine Kagan, and Jonathan Lethem.

    Timeline: can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for any commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

    Overall Rating: 4/5

    The five films of John Cassavetes contained in this box set will certainly not be for all tastes. They are demanding, often infuriating in their technique, and not always satisfying for those looking for plots that follow along traditional lines. Still, it’s the best any of the movies have ever looked on home video, and they’re certainly worth sampling for those who are unaccustomed to John Cassavetes’ very individualistic approach to filmmaking.

    Reviewed by: Matt Hough
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    2 Comments

    Photo
    Moe Dickstein
    Oct 21 2013 05:34 PM
    For those who care, this Blu edition when going to 5 discs lost the separate disc for "A Constant Forge" and along with it one of the spine numbers.

    Thanks for the heads up Moe. I'm still thinking of picking this one up, but like the previous edition, I'm still on the fence. It would be a total blind buy.