The Five Distractions

Schmucks, yuks, HK cool, film school, and a sociology experiment: 2004's best DVD sets

1. JOHN CASSAVETES: FIVE FILMS
(Criterion)

For the still-standing new wavers worth your gift-giving kindness, none of this year's video releases can touch this deep-dish monument to independent films' Flaubertian godfather, the incorruptible, actors'-advocate pioneer who decided as early as the late '50s that Hollywood didn't say all there was to say about American cinema. Post-Stanislavskian grit, documentary-style framing, working-class anti-stories, and ultra-realist breakdown dramatics all sprang from the man as from an artesian well. The goods here, on eight discs, are one of a kind. Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence(1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977) all come buttressed by multiple commentaries, archival docs, and interviews new and old, but this is Criterion, so history is served: Shadows has legendary 16mm workshop footage; Faces is freighted with a 17-minute alternate opening, and Bookie arrives in two full versions with an almost 30-minute difference between them, both edited by Cassavetes himself. Something of a 40-gun salute, the box is capped by a feature-length portrait of Cassavetes and a thick book of interviews, essays, and tributes by Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Lethem, and actress-Cassavetes secretary Elaine Kagan. MICHAEL ATKINSON


Cassavetes's muse: Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence
photo: Criterion Collection
Cassavetes's muse: Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence

2. THE MARX BROTHERS SILVER SCREEN COLLECTION
(Universal)

Now more than ever: This excellently produced box gathers the Marx Brothers' funniest, most anarchic pictures—all of which, not coincidentally, were made for what was then the most avant-pop of studios, Paramount. (The Brothers' later MGM pictures are sadly Thalbergized exercises in dilution and decline.) From the transposed stage musicals The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) through the S.J. Perelman–inflected Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) to the masterpiece Duck Soup (1933), fast-talking Groucho, fake-immigrant Chico, silent Harpo, and their straight man, Zeppo (not to mention their magnificent straight woman, the unflappable Margaret Dumont) maintained a resolutely outsider stance while spritzing Depression movie audiences with a bewildering brew of native surrealism. The first half of Monkey Business, in which the Brothers play stowaways on a posh ocean liner, may be their most hilariously antisocial outing. But Duck Soup, which was directed by Hal Roach veteran Leo McCarey, is the one Marx Brothers movie that is also a terrific movie. And need I say that the spectacle of Groucho's shyster presidency is scarcely irrelevant. The special features (three interviews from the Todayshow archives) are nothing special, but given the five features, who cares? J. HOBERMAN


3. WONG KAR-WAI COLLECTION
(Kino)

Mainstream movie culture has finally caught up with Wong, but his early films remain relatively underseen. Kino took a big corrective step with the recent release of Wong's resubtitled masterpiece, Days of Being Wild, the first flowering of his wistful romanticism and the crown jewel in this indispensable five-film box set, which covers the first decade of his career (minus the martial arts reverie Ashes of Time), from the brooding gangster love story As Tears Go Byto the mother of all breakup movies (and perhaps his best film to date), Happy Together. In between, Wong became the coolest and most influential director of the '90s. Conjuring a lushly regretful mood at once meringue light and velvet plush, the urban nocturnes Chungking Expressand Fallen Angelsinvented a brilliant shorthand of heartbreak and alienation—a pensive narrator, a smudge of neon, a monsoon close at hand. Like great pop songs, Wong's endlessly evocative films are built to withstand obsessive consumption, and indeed, once their spell takes hold, these are movies you love the way Chungking's Faye Wong loves "California Dreamin'." DENNIS LIM


4. MORE TREASURES FROM AMERICAN FILM ARCHIVES 1894–1931
(Image)

A wish come true: The 2000-released National Film Preservation Foundation DVD box, insanely packed with historic gotchas, home movies, newsreels, experimental films, un-lost silents, ad infinitum, is now a series. "More" ain't the half of it: This edition is almost 10 hours of treasurable cinemania, beginning from a trad film-school launching pad (Porter's Life of an American Firemanfrom 1903, Griffith's 1909 The Country Doctor, Lubitsch's fully restored 1925 version of Lady Windermere's Fan) and proceeding into the netherlands of forgotten visual history. On one hand you've got an early sound experiment from 1894, slices of the 1910 Ozfilms, and the 1896 smash version of Rip Van Winkle; on the other, a 1912 western featuring Lakota Sioux actors, a 1931 avant-gardism by film historian Jay Leyda, a 1926 record of Martha Graham's The Flute of Krishna, a 1906 holdup thriller made exclusively for railroad car theaters, and the prologue of the 1926 worker-made docudrama The Passaic Textile Strike. And acres more: actualities, Charley Bowers cartoons, promotional ads, Zora Neale Hurston's 1928 footage of Southern field-workers, we could dance all night. As before, the films and their music come lavishly documented. If we buy it, more will come. M.A.


5. THE UP SERIES
(First Run)

This year's most remarkable movie special effect was a decidedly lifelike one: the nearly decade-long gap between Before Sunriseand Before Sunset—a real-time lacuna that prompts melancholic introspection on the part of the viewer, who has aged alongside the characters. The Upseries, directed by Michael Apted since its second installment, has undertaken a nonfiction form of this time-lapse surveillance for four decades—selecting a cross section of 14 seven-year-olds from "startlingly different" backgrounds in 1963 and checking in on them at seven-year intervals since. Watching these films in a 10-hour chunk is to confront the alarming evidence of elapsed time, and to ponder the most basic existential questions about personal happiness. What begins as a sociological experiment in the limits of class immobility yields with age and familiarity to the intimate drama of individual lives. Only in the most recent chapter, 1998's 42 Up, do the subjects comment on their paradoxical status as "ordinary" test cases—shaped by the documentary version of the Heisenberg effect (i.e., the process of observing affects that which is being observed). The transformative friendship between math teacher Bruce and Neil, the depressive star of the series, gives 42 Up(further enhanced by Apted's thoughtful commentary) its poignant flavor of middle-aged resignation and hope. The set ends rewardingly, with a hard-earned sense of equilibrium—though be warned that 49 Upis due next year. D.L.

 
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