News Column

Five of Cassavetes' dark, moving classics

November 15, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 15--'Hollywood is not failing. It has failed."

So wrote actor, writer, and director John Cassavetes in 1959. Widely regarded as the progenitor and patron saint of American independent filmmaking, Cassavetes eloquently defined the auteur's drive to transcend the film industry's otherwise inextricable tie to the bottom line.

"Filmmaking, although unquestionably predicated on profit and loss like any other industry, cannot survive without individual expression," he wrote.

Cassavetes, who died in 1989 at age 59, not only wrote of the indie ethos -- he also shaped it, fashioning a dozen features between 1959 and 1986, of which only two were studio pictures.

Five of his best films -- Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night -- have been digitally restored on Blu-ray and collected in John Cassavetes: Five Films, a gorgeous boxed set from Criterion Collection. (www.criterion.com; $124.95; not rated)

While Cassavetes starred in dozens of genre pictures, including action, horror, and comedy, his own films can't easily be pigeonholed.

Inscrutable to some and at times uncomfortable to sit through, they are deeply moving, disturbing, and exquisitely poetic studies in existential psychology that take characters, often couples, through a dark night of the soul.

Cassavetes' work shares another key ingredient: They each star a devoted circle of actors, including Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes' wife of 35 years, Gena Rowlands.

Film was part of the very fabric of Cassavetes and Rowlands' life together. (Their three children are actors and directors.)

"They were living it 100 percent," their daughter Xan said in an Inquirer interview in May about her film Kiss of the Damned. "We saw them doing it, and it looked like so much fun."

The fun was interrupted by plenty of angst: Like Orson Welles, Cassavetes struggled mightily to finance his films. And his heavy drinking eventually led to his death.

But the work remains. And it continues to astound.

Other DVDs of note

We're the Millers. Yes, it features Jennifer Aniston as a hot stripper, but this sex-and-marijuana-seasoned road comedy is so much more! Pot dealer Jason Sudeikis is in for big bucks to his supplier, so he agrees to smuggle in a huge load from Mexico. Hilarity ensues. (www.wbshop.com; $35.99 DVD/Blu-ray Combo; rated R)

Informant. Leftist activist Brandon Darby stunned his friends when he infiltrated the protest movement at the 2008 Republican National Convention as an FBI informant. His story is told in Jamie Meltzer's riveting documentary, due Tuesday. (www.musicboxfilms.com; $29.95; not rated)

The World's End / Hot Fuzz / Shaun of the Dead Trilogy. Director Edgar Wright followed his hilarious TV show Spaced with the breakout hit, the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, starring funnyman Simon Pegg. This rad three-disc Blu-ray anthology, which is due Tuesday, includes Shaun, Wright and Pegg's 2007 spoof Hot Fuzz, and their new collaboration, The World's End. (www.universalstudiosentertainment.com; $49.98; rated R)

Unhung Hero. Actor Patrick Moote's girlfriend turned down his marriage proposal complaining, among other things, that he didn't measure up when it came to his anatomy. So Moote partnered with director Brian Spitz to shoot this candid -- at turns funny, gross, and touchy -- documentary. Due Nov. 26, it has Moote revisit his former girlfriends to ask: Does size really matter? (http://bgpics.com/cq; $17.99; not rated).

Renoir. France's highest-grossing film of 2012 is a winning psychological and artistic protrait of the relationship between the great impressionist painter Pierre-August Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and his then 19-year-old son, film auteur Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers), while they summered on the French Riviera in 1915. (www.newvideo.com; $29.95 DVD; $34.95 Blu-ray; rated R)

Peter Gunn, The Final Season. You probably know the famous theme song by Henry Mancini. Now get to know the show, which ran on ABC from 1958 to 1961. Created by Blake Edwards, the half-hour, noir-influenced detective drama starred Craig Stevens as an incorruptible Private Eye, a potent force of good in an increasingly dark New York City. The third and final season is due Tuesday. The amazing jazz score, the shadowy ambience, and Stevens' characterization of Gunn as a hardened cynic -- and an ever-hopeful idealist -- make this a true classic. (www.timelessvideo.com; $29.93; not rated)

tirdad@phillynews.com

215-854-2736

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