John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes

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Shadows Review


Good
Long before Hollywood studios sold "independent" films to the masses and digital video filled the screen with directionless angst, independent cinema had a purpose and a master -- John Cassavetes. Although Cassavetes' directorial debut Shadows captures the actor-turned-director at his most unrefined, it's also his most ambitious. Like the Charles Mingus soundtrack that pulsates throughout the film, Shadows is a cinematic improvisation (as the end credits mention) of amateur vitality.

New York City is typically the stuff of romantic ruminations, but Shadows' NYC is a clash of interests and ethical moralities -- a place where unmotivated musician Ben (Ben Carruthers) and his artistry-driven, professional singer brother Hugh (Hugh Hurd) can co-exist. The film foremost deals with race in relationships -- personal, professional, and fleeting -- following the two brothers and their sister Leila (Leila Goldoni). Hopes are dashed as Hugh's nightclub performance is cut short by a white owner and an untalented chorus line, Ben's free-wheelin' life becomes as empty as his brother implies when he's beaten up for hitting on some other cat's chicks, and Leila's first love turns out to be a racist, pseudo-intellectual.

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A Woman Under The Influence Review


Good
John Cassavetes' pioneering independent film represents a hallmark of the indie scene, but at its heart is an excellent story told exceedingly badly. Low production values (bad focus, etc.) can be forgiven, but a rambling, 2 1/2 hour, directionless pace can not. Cassavetes cast wife Gena Rowlands as a clearly-going-insane woman, earning her an Oscar nomination. The story of her fall, rise, and fall again is vaguely reminiscent of Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Cassavetes gets credit for the homage this picture still is paid. The monotone piano music is hauntingly similar to that in Eyes Wide Shut. Remember that music and be warned: Even on DVD, this picture has the worst sound I've ever heard on a feature film. Shame on the studio for not cleaning it up for the digital release.

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The Dirty Dozen Review


Very Good
Can The Dirty Dozen really be 40 years old? Well, almost. This watershed film paved the ways for bad-guys-as-heroes flicks ranging from The Wild Bunch to Reservoir Dogs, and its influence is still felt today. Yet how can The Dirty Dozen feel so tired when viewed in this millennium? Maybe its a cast that, though exquisite, is a bit much. The Dirty Dozen also appears to have paved the way for the Airport movies, studded with megastars and short on plot. Viewed today, too much of Dozen is schlocky and trite, reliant on stereotypes that border on Hogan's Heroes-level characterizations to tell the WWII-era story. (Writ large: 12 career criminals are given a last chance to pull off a major anti-Nazi mission.) The film is pioneering, daring, and very well made. But there's a bit much to go around, and now you can see the actors jockeying for notice among each other. Still a good film, though its impact is now starting to fade.

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Gloria (1980) Review


Bad
John Cassavetes made some iffy movies during his career, but none is worse than the original Gloria, one of many films made with with his wife Gena Rowlands and proving that even her natural charm and ability can't muster its way through one of the worst stories ever told. Straight out of a Hallmark card comes this story of a pistol-totin' bad mama who protects a little Puerto Rican kid on the streets of New York from the hands of the mob. This movie is so saccharine and at the same time ridiculous that it's impossible to take seriously. And yet it goes on and on and on for over two hours. Appalling.

The Fury Review


Good
Early Brian De Palma horror/thriller takes the Carrie vibe one by putting a government intrigue plot on the heads of its telekinetic teens -- which means people getting killed if they don't play nice. Kirk Douglas shines as the spy father of just such a teen (Andrew Stevens!), while across the globe, Amy Irving is just coming to terms with her powers. Of course, the feds will stop at nothing to control the powers in question. Watchable, but completely hokey (which, of course, is typical of De Palma's films altogether).

She's So Lovely Review


Weak
Nick Cassavetes, working from his father's script, practically remakes his father's film A Woman Under the Influence, with even less charm that the original. For starters, the film makes practically no sense at all. "She" in this movie, is Robin Wright, who is made to look as un-lovely as you can imagine and with a phony accent so bad as to drive you to the bottle. Her man is Sean Penn, a wacked-out, two-bit lowlife, with whom she is inexplicably involved... until one day, when he snaps, sending him to the loony bin for 10 years. Wright, meet Travolta, who get married and have kids, until our buddy Sean gets out of the mental ward, gets a dumb haircut, and steals his lady away from her suburban family.

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The Incubus (1981) Review


Weak
John Hough isn't exactly known as a moviemaking genius (check out 2001's Hell's Gate), but maybe some will take his dazzling prolificness as a substitute for quality. One of his most maligned films, 1981's The Incubus, has John Cassavetes as a New England doctor who finds himself performing one autopsy after another on the slaughtered young girls of the town.

Is the doctor's boyfriend -- who's experience sadistic nightmares -- the culprit? Or is it an otherworldly beast called the incubus?

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Faces Review


OK
Widely considered the first "mainstream" independent film, Faces earned three Oscar nominations and wide acclaim for a cast acting itse way through two hours of intense arguments and situations regarding infidelity and the meaninglessness of life. From John Cassavetes, who treads on these subject continually, comes this rambling and ultimately uninspired film, intentionally made to look cheap and lacking in much resolution. Seymour Cassel turns in the most interesting performance, achieved largely through screaming at the top of his lungs. Check out Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or even A Streetcar Named Desire for better renditions of some of these ideas.

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Rosemary's Baby Review


Excellent
Hopelessly trapped in its late-'60s look, Rosemary's Baby is nonetheless a watershed movie in the horror genre. It takes an eternity to get moving, sure, but once this story of Mia Farrow's possessed belly gets moving, watch out, for there's no stopping the horror, the horror. The faces of cinema legend (Ruth Gordon, Ralph Bellamy) dot the movie throughout, but it's the smarmy John Cassavetes who steals the show, beating out even Farrow as the ultimate soft-spoken housewife who gets caught up in a world of hell. Er, literally.

The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie Review


Very Good
One of John Cassavetes' grittiest films, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, if nothing else, gives us Ben Gazzara in a virtuoso performance. His haughty strip club owner is full of sadness and great lines, and though his story is circuitous and overlong (particularly the 1976 original; the 1978 version is about half an hour shorter), it's got moxie. The dilemma at hand: Should the broke Gazzara kill a rival Chinese bookie in order to wipe out his own $23,000 gambling bet? Heavy stuff, but it takes its sweet sweet time in getting to the point.

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John Cassavetes

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