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Love Streams: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

Love Streams (1984) movie poster Love Streams

Theatrical Release: August 24, 1984 / Running Time: 141 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: John Cassavetes / Writers: Ted Allan (play & screenplay), John Cassavetes (screenplay)

Cast: Gena Rowlands (Sarah Lawson), John Cassavetes (Robert Harmon), Diahnne Abbott (Susan), Seymour Cassel (Jack Lawson), Margaret Abbott (Margarita), Jakob Shaw (Albie Swanson), Michele Conway (Agnes Swanson), Eddy Donno (Eddie Swanson), Joan Foley (Judge Dunbar), Al Ruban (Milton Kravitz), Tom Badal (Sam the Lawyer), Risa Martha Blewitt (Debbie Lawson), David Rowlands (The Psychiatrist), Robert Fieldsteel (Dr. Williams), Raphael De Niro (Billy), Tony Brubaker (Frank), John Roselius (Ken), Jessica St. John (Dottie)

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John Cassavetes is revered by many who know his work. That class was relatively small during and shortly following Cassavetes' career, which ended with his 1989 death of cirrhosis at age 59. But it grows all the time, with enduring recognition from scholars,
historians, and filmmakers who acknowledge his influence.

Cassavetes wrote and directed independent films before that was considered cool. A teacher and student of method acting, Cassavetes had made the rounds on television for nearly a decade when he made Shadows (1959), his writing and directing debut. Cassavetes continued to act, appearing in such films as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary's Baby, but filmmaking was his passion and he wouldn't let more than a few years pass without writing, directing, and starring alongside his wife, Gena Rowlands, and their circle of actor friends in personal films that shunned convention and defied easy classification.

In the same summer that audiences flocked to Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid, Cassavetes released Love Streams to theaters. Providing the last finished script and penultimate directing credit of his short life, this 1984 dramedy stands as one of the Greek-American auteur's least-known yet best-regarded films.

Alcoholic playboy Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes) tries to bond with his estranged son over the boy's first beer.

It tells two stories about the same family. First, we meet Robert Harmon (Cassavetes), a wealthy, successful writer. He fills his home with young women, 18 and up. You get the impression that he is counseling them in some way, as he asks about their talents and interests. But Robert's also sleeping with at least two of them (at the same time) and he's the one writing checks to all of them. A fixture at lounges, where he is hit on by cross-dressing gay men, Robert takes a liking to one singer (Diahnne Abbott), whose car he drunkenly forces himself into.

We take breaks from the exploits of the hard-drinking playboy to also grab views of Sarah Lawson (Rowlands), a middle-aged woman who is going through a divorce to Jack (Seymour Cassel), her husband of fifteen years. Sarah is supposed to have custody of the couple's thirteen-year-old daughter Debbie (Risa Blewitt), but the girl is tired of their life together spent visiting the sick, old, dying, and dead. In and out of institutions over the years, the troubled Sarah takes her doctor's advice and visits Europe, albeit to little pleasure.

She then shows up at the house of Robert, who we casually, eventually come to learn is her brother. At the moment, Robert has Albie Swanson (Jakob Shaw), his estranged 8-year-old son, who he's watching for the day and night. After clearing his house of the women, Robert decides to take the boy, whom he's just served his first beer, on a spontaneous trip to Las Vegas. Robert is frank with his son, telling him of his sexual needs, before leaving the boy in Dad's regular hotel suite by himself for the night.

Love Streams takes a humorous turn when Sarah, determined to introduce Robert to love, splurges at the animal shelter on miniature horses, a goat, a parakeet, chickens, duck, and a not terribly friendly dog as pets. The next thing you know, balance-seeking Sarah is unwell and her condition is cause for concern with the soon-dismissed doctor making a house call.

Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) turns a messy divorce messier with her plans not to honor the court's custody arrangement. Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes) is as uncomfortable with fatherhood as he is with true romance.

Synopsis is no easy task for Love Streams because it is structured more like life than a film.
Wikipedia credits Cassavetes with pioneering the use of improvisation and cinéma vérité. Both of those elements are on display here. Though adapted from Ted Allan's 1980 play of the same name (the Canadian writer also shares a screenplay credit with the director), the film clearly allows room for interpretation and interplay. It is almost completely unconventional and amorphous. Naturalist acting seems a greater priority than the narrative, which bends, breaks, and skips to let the film go wherever it will.

Today, we can easily find some films like this. They are the type that, despite strong critical marks, struggle to find distribution and settle for a release in just a handful of theaters. That fringe niche doesn't even seem to have existed thirty years ago. Box Office Mojo shows no records for Love Streams or Cassavetes' final work as director, 1986's Big Trouble. They played in theaters, but how many and to how many moviegoers seems unknowable officially. The director's previous film, 1980's Gloria, grossed $4 million, a respectable take for an indie film now which, adjusting for inflation, translates to a practically powerhouse $12.3 M today. That film earned Rowlands, his wife of 35 years, an Academy Award nomination as did their 1974 collaboration A Woman Under the Influence, which also earned Cassavetes a Best Director bid (his second of three fruitless Oscar nods in three different categories over a period of seven years).

With its wide emotional gamut, mobile camerawork, complex characters, messy situations, and surreal touches, Love Streams is a lot easier to respect than it is to like. It is an achievement in anything-goes human storytelling with a number of striking moments, but it's a bit challenging on a first viewing and as an introduction to Cassavetes' distinct style. The presentation, so different from anything else, takes some getting used to. There are few films I would liken this to. All I can think of is Kramer vs. Kramer in terms of content and maybe something like Harold and Maude in terms of humanity.

Never before available on Region 1 DVD and therefore long relegated to an oddly truncated 122-minute VHS, Love Streams recently became the sixth Cassavetes-directed film admitted into The Criterion Collection, a pretty impressive number for someone who only directed twelve films. It takes spine #721 in a two-disc DVD and the two-DVD, one-Blu-ray Dual-Format Edition reviewed here.

Love Streams: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 1.0 LPCM (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: August 12, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 and 2 DVD-9s)
Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-Disc Criterion DVD ($29.95 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

An independent film from the early 1980s seems likely to wrestle with some issues of age and sources. Not this one! Criterion makes Love Streams look amazing, somehow keeping the 30-year-old element sharp, clean, and nicely detailed throughout. While it maybe won't have the same visual impact as Ghostbusters or Temple of Doom, the film looks terrific on Blu-ray, leaving no apparent room for improvement.

The Blu-ray presents the 1.0 monaural soundtrack in the lossless LPCM format. The sound isn't something you'll really notice, but the mix is suitable. Volume needs to be turned up, but once it is, there are no problems, as dialogue remains intelligible throughout and music has life to it.

Cinematographer Al Ruban recalls his collaboration with John Cassavetes. In this 2014 interview, actress Diahnne Abbott focuses on the one Cassavetes film in her limited, Scorsese-heavy filmography.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Extras, which are the same on each format but encoded in HD on Blu-ray, begin with an audio commentary recorded this year by the film's on-set documentarian Michael Ventura (who wrote the book Cassavetes Directs). His unique perspective allows him to speak to the circumstances of filming each sequence. As a result, this very rehearsed track proves to be both passionate and knowledgeable. He touches on such topics as the director's lack of critical appreciation during his life, the mortal illness he hid from everyone, his frightening personality,
a scene directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the lack of actual improvisation (though the script was largely rewritten on the fly), the many unanswered questions the film raises, and Cassavetes and Rowland's relationship. He also identifies personnel as they appear, detailing the lives and careers of the actors while pointing out that much of the cast is family or crew. Ventura's analysis is illuminating. His behind-the-scenes information is vast. The combination of the two give this considerable value and makes the substantial time required easier to invest.

On the video side, we begin with three newly-released interviews.

In 2014, executive producer and cinematographer Al Ruban (18:17) reflects not only on this film but all the ones he made with Cassavetes. He reveals how little he wanted to direct photography on this film, that Jon Voight bowed out at the last minute requiring Cassavetes to play the lead, and his relationship with Cassavetes up until the end (including his advice for such an interview).

Also in 2014, Diahnne Abbott (12:45), perhaps best known as Robert De Niro's first wife, discusses her short film career, and working with Cassavetes on this film along with her mother and her son, the play that preceded it, and a scene she wrote.

Seymour Cassel answers questions about working with Cassavetes at 2008's Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland. The new video essay "Watching Gena Rowlands" celebrates the actress' performance not only in "Love Streams" but other films directed by her husband John Cassavetes.

Then, we get excerpts from Seymour Cassel's Q & A (11:46) at Finland's 2008 Midnight Sun Film Festival pertaining to his collaborations and relationship with Cassavetes.

"Watching Gena Rowlands" (24:16) is a new visual essay by film critic Sheila O'Malley. It excerpts and celebrates Rowlands' performances in the films written and directed by her longtime husband, while also putting them into the context of the actress' long career. Am I the only one who's been pronouncing her name as "Gina" instead of "Jenna" all this time?

"'I'm Almost Not Crazy...' - John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work" (56:08) is a 1983 documentary about the making of Love Streams written and directed by Michael Ventura for television, per the studio's wishes. Such a film is expectedly invaluable, offering unfettered behind-the-scenes looks at production, rehearsal, and editing. The footage gives much insight into a creative process many still consider a sacred gold standard for collaborative, human filmmaking. And surprisingly a couple of colleagues are candidly critical of Cassavetes' self-serving methods.

John Cassavetes directs longtime wife Gena Rowlands on the set of "Love Streams." The Blu-ray's menu uses a static shot of a bloodied Robert (John Cassavetes).

Finally, we get Love Streams'

long original theatrical trailer (3:10).

The DVD places all the extras but the commentary on its bonus features disc.

The menu attaches the end credits' song to a static shot of Cassavetes. As always, Criterion authors the Blu-ray to support bookmarks and let you resume playback of everything.

The three discs, which present the film's title in different colors, take opposite sides of one of Criterion's standard clear keepcases. They are joined by a whopper of a companion booklet. Besides the usual disc and film information, the 32-page booklet includes "A Fitful Flow", an essay by Film Society of Lincoln Center programmer Dennis Lim. It supplies both a fine reading of the film and a knowledgeable dissection of Cassavetes' career as writer-director.

We also get "How Love and Life Mingle on Film", an article by Cassavetes published in The New York Times the week that Love Streams opened in August 1984. It explains the origins of the film, the personal experiences that he and Ted Allan drew upon in writing it, and the evolution of the project during its years in development.

At an animal shelter, Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) looks for the right pet to open her brother's heart.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Love Streams served as my overdue introduction to John Cassavetes' filmmaking and gave me an understanding of how his films are celebrated for being so different and original. Having said that, while I can admire the unconventional presentation and creative techniques, this film didn't do it for me in one viewing. Then again, the films of modern filmmakers influenced by Cassavetes tend to grow on subsequent viewings, so maybe this will be the same way.

Criterion's Blu-ray combo is a delight, with its stellar feature presentation and abundance of really good extras. It's a must-have for fans of the director and well worth a look for anyone curious to see the work that makes Cassavetes so special among film buffs and knowledgeable filmmakers.

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Related Reviews:
Featuring John Cassavetes: Rosemary's Baby | Gena Rowlands: Parts Per Billion
Seymour Cassel: The Royal TenenbaumsRushmore | Diahnne Abbott: Taxi Driver
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What Maisie KnewAugust: Osage CountyThe Squid and the WhaleThe 400 Blows
New: Y Tu Mamá TambiénDead WithinAny Given SundayBorgman

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Reviewed September 14, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1984 The Cannon Group, Golan-Globus Productions, and 2014 The Criterion Collection, Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.