Blu-ray Review: Criterion Remasters Five of Cassavetes’ Best

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CHICAGO – It’s rare that I feel comfortable using this kind of hyperbole in a Blu-ray review but here it goes — having watched it again on Criterion Blu-ray, after not seeing it in years, I’m more convinced than ever that John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” is one of the best films ever made. Maybe it’s because I’m older now and have a family of my own, but my most recent viewing of this masterpiece was heartwrenching in a totally different way. It’s stunning. And the Criterion remaster of it, accompanied by four other of the most important films in the history of the independent film movement in “Cassavetes: Five Films” is a beauty. Oh, yeah, “Shadows,” “Faces,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” and “Opening Night” are damn good too. This is one of the best possible gifts you could pick up for the movie lover in your family this holiday season. Loaded with special features, it’s practically akin to buying them a film class in a box. Blu-ray rating: 5.0/5.0
Rating: 5.0/5.0

What can we learn from Cassavetes? Truth. He would argue that his films were truth, notoriously, and that may be a bit much, but he definitely captured truth. Most importantly, he found ways to draw truth from his performers. Gena Rowlands’ work in “Woman” is some of the most soul-baring, honest acting you’ll ever see. Reportedly, she asked John to write a play about the impact of life on the modern mother and they had to transform it into a film because it was too intense for her to do it every night (one can easily spot the two-act structure of the drama).

“Woman” is far from alone in this loaded set. You’ll also find Cassavetes’ first film, the moving “Shadows,” alongside the drama “Faces” and the self-examinatory “Opening Night.” Interestingly, both versions of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” are remastered, although history vastly prefers the edited, shorter version. With a dense booklet of material and HOURS of special features, “Cassavetes: Five Films” is a must-own for classic cinema fans.

Cassavetes: Five Films was released on Criterion Blu-ray and re-released on Criterion DVD on October 22, 2013
Cassavetes: Five Films was released on Criterion Blu-ray and re-released on Criterion DVD on October 22, 2013
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

John Cassavetes was a genius, a visionary, and the progenitor of American independent film, but that doesn’t begin to get at the generosity of his art. A former theater actor fascinated by the power of improvisation, Cassavetes brought his search for truth in performance to the screen. The five films in this collection - all of which the director maintained total control over by financing them himself and making them outside the studio system - are electrifying and compassionate creations, populated by all manner of humanity: beatniks, hippies, businessmen, actors, housewives, strippers, club owners, gangsters, children. Cassavetes has often been called an actor’s director, but this body of work - even greater than the sum of its extraordinary parts - shows him to be an audience’s director.

Special Features:
o A Constant Forge: The Life And Art Of John Cassavetes - A 200 Minute Documentary By Charles Kiselyak
o Interviews With Actor Lelia Goldoni And Associate Producer Seymour Cassel About Shadows
o Silent Footage From The Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop, From Which Shadows Emerged
o Restoration Demonstration For Shadows
o Alternate Eighteen-Minute Opening Sequence For Faces
o Episode Of The French Television Series Cineastes De Notre Temps From 1968, Dedicated To Cassavetes
o Making “Faces”, A Documentary Featuring Interviews With Actors Cassel, Lynn Carlin, and Gena Rowlands and Director Of Photography Al Ruban
o Al Ruban On Lighting And Shooting Faces, a New Program
o Audio Commentary For A Woman Under The Influence By Sound Records and Composter Bo Harwood and Camera Operator Mike Ferris
o Conversation Between Rowlands And Actor Peter Falk And Ruban Discussing The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie
o Conversation Between Rowlands and Gazzara About Opening Night
o Interview With Ruban About Opening Night
o Three Audio Interview With Cassavetes From The 1970s
o Stills And Poster Galleries
o Trailers
o Booklet Featuring Essays By Gary Giddins, Kent Jones, Kiselyak, Stuart Klawans, Dennis Lim, and Philip Lopate, Writing By And Interviews With Cassavetes and Tributes to the Filmmaker By Director Martin Scorsese, Actor and Writer Elaine Kagan, Cassavetes’s Former Secretary and Novelist Jonathan Lethem

“Cassavetes: Five Films” was released on Criterion Blu-ray and re-released on Criterion DVD on October 22, 2013. content director Brian Tallerico

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