Aug 17 2009

DVDs for 8/18/09 – Runaway Husbands, Undercover Beasts, Serial Killers and Deadly Venoms

John Cassavetes has been called the godfather of American independent cinema, and for good reason: he made highly personal, aggressively discomforting, astonishingly intimate films about troubled relationships in the modern world. Husbands, subtitled “A comedy about life death and freedom,” follows three middle-aged men (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes), long time friends and family men, as they run from their despair after the death of the man who completed their fun-loving group. This is a Cassavetes kind of mid-life crisis: they indulge their worst, most selfish instincts as they attempt to outrun their fears of mortality and frustrations of compromised lives. They carouse in all-night drinking binges, rush off for a weekend of gambling and cheating in London and slip into boyish giggling and sniggering whenever the situation gets too personal. Only while safely hidden in a bar room toilet do they let their fears pour out. It’s also interesting to note that this film was produced in 1969 and released in 1970, looking forward in style and subject matter to the films that would define seventies filmmaking.

Four friends, soon to be three

Four friends, soon to be three

As with most of Cassavete’s personal projects, his script was reworked through rehearsals and improvisations with actors investing themselves deeply in their characters and dramatic crises. The result is a mix of idiosyncratic insights and raw emotion pouring out in startling moments between long, rambling, often uncomfortable conversations which are as much about what is not said as what is, and sold by raw, intense performances and volatile ensemble chemistry. Cassavete’s original version was cut by the studio for wide release. This DVD is restored to its 142 minute running time. Cassavetes biographer Marshall Fine offers a well-organized commentary that is both a Cassavetes primer and a comprehensive study of the development of the film. The excellent 30-minute documentary The Story of Husbands: A Tribute to John Cassavetes features new interviews with Gazzara, producer Al Ruban and director of photography Victor Kemper, whose insights and remembrances fill out Fine’s portrait of Cassavetes even more. “John used rehearsals mainly for himself, to rewrite, to listen,” explains an aged but still very articulate Gazarra. “He had an idea of where this material was going, what played, what didn’t play. So we rehearsed for three weeks before we started shooting.” Adds producer Ruban: “His style, if you can call it such, is coming to the set, everyone, being prepared to do the day’s work and then discovering something that was totally unexpected from the actors…. And that’s why he is really an actor’s director.” The most unexpected revelation: Cassavetes didn’t know Gazarra or Falk before he cast them. He merely knew of their work and thought they would be good collaborators. His instincts were right: they became regular collaborators and lifelong friends.

“You trust your case file and you trust your partner.” In The Beast, veteran undercover FBI agent Charles Barker (Patrick Swayze) lives by this motto and expects his young partner, Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel), to commit to it body and soul. It’s a lot of Ellis to take on faith, what with Barker playing by his own rules (he’s not above planting evidence to move a case forward, swiping evidence for later or shooting his own partner to keep his cover) and FBI Internal Affairs agents on Barker’s trail. Originally made for the A&E Network, this gritty show likes to play in the gray areas and the Chicago locations offer plenty of visual opportunities for just that, but it’s the gaunt, leathery Swayze, his face etched with age and experience, that makes the show. We know now that the effects of cancer and chemotherapy had something to do with his gauntness and that may have been part of the reason the A&E did not renew the series. The low ratings didn’t help either. The “24”-like conspiracy is left hanging at the end of the season, but the two-part finale wraps the season-long arc satisfyingly enough for anyone interested in exploring the show on DVD. The only supplements to the 13 episodes are 13 slight promotional featurettes (all under two minutes).

Jennifer Lynch returns to the director’s chair after 15 years for Surveillance, a this rather creative (and awfully vicious) take on the serial killer thriller. FBI agents Julia Ormond and Bill Pullman (both excellent) pull into a desert town police station to interview the survivors of a murder spree and the lies, obfuscations and mind games begin. Given the mood music, offbeat dialogue, disturbed, screwed up characters and generally dark world in the bright light of day, you can’t miss the affinities to her father’s work. But Jennifer is no David Lynch and her film, while inventive and quirky and at time quite devious, misses the organic alchemy of his films. Director Jennifer Lynch and co-stars Mac Miller and Charlie Newmark offer a rather perfunctory commentary track and there are two deleted scenes and a radically alternate ending that offers the closest thing to a “happy ending” this film grim vision could hope for, all with optional commentary by Lynch. Also includes the featurette “Surveillance: The Watched Are Watching” (with plenty of interviews and behind the scenes footage) and a brief promotional piece that passes itself off as another featurette.

From legendary martial arts movie director Chang Cheh and Shaw Brothers studios comes the 1978 classic The Five Deadly Venoms, a late entry in the old school Hong Kong martial arts spectacle with a fun spin on the familiar revenge plot. This one plays more like a spaghetti western, with five star students of the Five Venoms clan gone mercenary to search for hidden treasure and ready to kill one another for it. The ostensible hero, a young student sent by the dying master to keep the criminal elders in line, is largely an observer until the climactic battle, but there’s plenty of double crosses, devious tortures and scheming plots to keep you occupied along the way. The Genius release comes from a beautiful restoration from Celestial Pictures, a Hong Kong company that has returned to the master source material in a systematic restoration and DVD rerelease the Shaw Brothers catalogue. This film has never looked remotely this clear or clean or vivid on American home video, and probably not on film either. The Genius release features typically informed commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, who packs his audio track with background detail on the martial arts styles, stunts and performers.

Part video-game fantasy, part juvenile space opera in the post-Star Wars era, The Last Starfighter is a charming 1984 adventure that is just as charming in its Blu-ray debut twenty five years later. Amiable Lance Guest is the small town teenager who dreams of leaving the trailer park for big city life and ends up in something much bigger; his high score on a video game launches him into a career as a starship fighter pilot in an intergalactic war against an evil empire. Robert Preston co-stars as the intergalactic con man who recruits Guest, Dan O’Herlihy is a jovial lizardman navigator who becomes a combination best friend, father figure and military adviser, Guest is very funny doing double duty as his robot double and Catherine Mary Stewart is the most charming girl-next-door of her era, with foxy eyes, a winning smile and lots of spunk: game tomboy and all-girl sweetheart. She does wonders creating a character out of almost nothing. The simplistic plot and simple story work thanks to the energy and light touch of director Nick Castle. The film is also a special effects landmark: the first science fiction film to make extensive use of computer generated effects. They look primitive by today’s standards – you can do this good on home computers now – but in the context of the gee-whiz adventure and computer gaming references it works just fine. Interestingly enough, the clarity of Blu-ray helps sell the primitive CGI effects: the crispness enhances the old-school texture and color and the crispness enhances the old video-game style into focus. Features commentary by director Nick Castle and production designer Ron Cobb, the 40-minute documentary featurette Crossing the Frontier: The Making of The Last Starfighter and the new 24-minute retrospective documentary Heroes of the Screen, which reminds us just how groundbreaking the effects were for 1984.

I review the TV release Sons of Anarchy: Season One, the three-disc Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection and Criterion’s magnificent Blu-ray release of Jacques Tati’s magnificent Playtime on my blog here.

For the rest of the highlights (including The Last House on the Left 2009, Absurdistan and Al Jolson in Wonder Bar), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray. For a more in-depth look at the Last House on the Left remake, see my essay on my blog here.

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