JOHN CASSAVETES: FIVE FILMS (1959-1977). John Cassavetes has often been pegged as the father of independent cinema, yet clearly he remains removed from today's breed of indie filmmakers, whose products generally lean on corporate sponsorship (e.g., Kevin Smith's films with Disney arm Miramax) far more than Cassavetes' output ever did. Taking the money he earned from co-starring in Hollywood films like The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary's Baby, this edgy innovator would then turn around and self-finance his own pet projects. Hailed as "life-changing" by fans and "self-indulgent" by detractors, Cassavetes' movies inject themselves under the skin and either produce a pleasurable buzz or a maddening rash -- depending on one's point of view. This gorgeous Criterion boxed set contains five of the movies that Cassavetes made on his own dime, aided by his own devoted troupe of actors. Shadows (1959), his startling debut piece, began as an acting workshop exercise and morphed into a movie that, when broken down, isn't even about its central plot thread (an interracial romance) as much as it's about capturing the jazzy milieu of late-50s New York. Shadows is followed in the set by Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), his most popular movies among critics, art-house audiences and Academy members (Faces earned nods for Cassavetes' original screenplay and supporting players Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin, while Woman copped nominations for his direction and wife Gena Rowlands' lead performance). Both center on emotionally errant marriages: Faces touches upon the affairs of spouses John Marley and Carlin with, respectively, Rowlands and Cassel, while Woman magnifies in squirmy detail the efforts of a couple (Rowlands and Peter Falk) to cope with her -- or should that be their? -- mental meltdown. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), starring Ben Gazzara as a smalltime nightclub owner, was Cassavetes' attempt to make a film with more commercial elements, but the melding of a conventional narrative with his own abstract musings never quite works (the set also includes the recut 1978 version, but it also falls flat). Finally, the retrospective-in-a-box concludes with Opening Night (1977), an occasionally infuriating but ultimately affecting drama about a stage actress (Rowlands) coping with both the demands of her role and the death of a teenage fan. Extras in this eight-disc DVD set include a 68-page booklet packed with superb essays, a 200-minute documentary on Cassavetes titled A Constant Forge, and numerous interviews.
A Woman Under the Influence:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie:
THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987). If Carrie and Dressed to Kill are the best Brian DePalma films that are instantly recognizable as Brian DePalma films, The Untouchables qualifies as the best movie that the director made as a gun-for-hire. DePalma has long admitted that he took this project solely in the hopes of scoring a commercial hit, yet the finished piece remains more than just some multiplex seat filler: It's one of the all-time great gangster flicks, a gorgeously realized production that places archetypal heroes and villains in the service of a rip-roaring storyline. David Mamet's lean script, bearing little relationship to the old TV series, finds federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner, kicking off a formidable run of box office hits) deciding that he will stop at nothing to bring down Chicago mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro) during the days of Prohibition. As the grizzled cop who takes Ness under his wing, Sean Connery earned a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar, though he should have been joined in the winners' circle by cinematography Stephen H. Burum and especially composer Ennio Morricone, whose sweeping score ranks among his finest achievements (and that's saying a helluva lot). DVD extras include short features on the film's production and the theatrical trailer.
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