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Archive for the ‘J.D.’s film reviews’ Category

By J.D. Lafrance

By the time he made The Getaway (1972), Steven McQueen was in desperate need of a commercially successful film. His last three were box office flops, especially his last one, Junior Bonner (1972). Incidentally, Sam Peckinpah, who directed both films, was also in a need of a hit and saw this project as a way to show Hollywood that he could make a box-office hit. In doing so, the director once again was forced to compromise his vision for someone else’s – in this case, McQueen who did everything in his power to make The Getaway his ticket back into the elite, A-list club of major Hollywood players.

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George Stevens’ Giant

By J.D. Lafrance

“It is a saga of America…Though the film chronicles the rise of a great Texas cattle and oil dynasty and its relationship to the rest of the community, it could be the story of any section of the United States, confronted with parallel problems. It is Americana.” – George Stevens

Years ago, when Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical drama There Will Be Blood (2007) was released, I came across a review that compared it to George Stevens’ Western epic Giant (1956) and went on to say that the former was a prequel of sorts to the latter. This comparison intrigued and stayed with me for years, making me think of Stevens’ film in a new light. Like Anderson’s film, Giant chronicles the emergence of big oil in the United States only on a much larger scale. It depicts the trials and tribulations of a Texas family from the 1920s until after World War II.

Adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel of the same name, it was directed by Stevens who had made the masterful Western Shane (1953), and starred three young actors in their twenties: Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor – both of whom had already made several films – and James Dean, who was appearing in only his third film but already had an Academy Award nomination and would receive another one for his performance in Giant. Unfortunately, he died before it was completed. The film went on to become a big commercial and critical hit and is rightly viewed as a cinematic masterpiece even though it isn’t talked about as much anymore.

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Less Than Zero

By J.D. Lafrance

In 1985, Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero was published when he was only 20 and still in college. Its debauched tale of bored and hedonistic Los Angeles rich kids became a hit with the novel selling millions of copies. The Village Voice included him as part of a new generation of writers labeled the “literary brat pack” along with Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York). It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling and the 1987 film version proceeded to neuter the source material by imposing a strong anti-drug message and toning down the sexuality to the point that Ellis hated the film, insisting that the end result resembled his novel in name only. Over the years, the film has transcended its source material and works best as a snapshot of the times and the social milieu it depicts.

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The Killers

By J.D. Lafrance

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and featured two hitmen sent to kill a man who makes no attempt to run or defend himself. Producer Mark Hellinger bought the screen rights for $36,750 and the screenplay was written by John Huston (uncredited), Anthony Veiller and Richard Brooks. The Killers was released in 1946 and featured Burt Lancaster in his film debut, pairing him up with a young Ava Gardner after five years of minor roles. The end result is a classic film noir featuring a doomed protagonist and an alluring femme fatale intertwined over a large sum of money.

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by J.D. Lafrance

After the smash box office success of A Better Tomorrow (1986) in its native country of Hong Kong and other Asian territories, the film’s producer Tsui Hark convinced its director John Woo to quickly crank out a sequel imaginatively titled A Better Tomorrow II (1987). The two men had a contentious relationship during production and this spilled over during the editing phase where they argued over the length of the film. It got so bad that a mediator had to step in, allowing Hark and Woo to each edit a half of the film. The end result is a flawed yet fascinating mess of a film that divided Woo fans but helped popularize what became known as the Heroic bloodshed movie, a genre of Hong Kong cinema distinctive for its overtly stylized action sequences often involving excessive gunplay and melodramatic themes consisting of brotherhood, honor, duty, and ultimately redemption.

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By J.D. Lafrance

Popeye (1980) is the film you get when the powers that be entrust a big budget, high-profile project to an idiosyncratic maverick like Robert Altman who proceeds to take the studio’s money and produces a fascinating cinematic oddity. Never one to play it safe, he enlisted fellow iconoclastic artists like musician Harry Nilsson to compose the score, acclaimed playwright Jules Feiffer to write the screenplay and cast comedian Robin Williams, in only his second film role and first starring one, as the titular character. Looking back at it now, it’s amazing that the film ever got made in the first place (it almost didn’t). It is also a powerful reminder of just how safe and formulaic these kinds of films have become over the years (one only has to look as far as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies). This is due in large part to publicized commercial failures like Popeye, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), which resulted in Hollywood freezing out these darlings of 1970s American cinema in favor of successful producers like Joel Silver, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who helped usher in a flashy style over substance that reflected the materialistic decade of the 1980s.

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by J.D. Lafrance

With the success of Legends of the Fall (1994), Julia Ormond briefly dabbled with the Hollywood A-list, appearing in big budget studio productions like First Knight (1995) and an ill-conceived remake of Sabrina (1995). While the former was a commercial hit, the latter was not and to be fair, both projects felt like an ill-fit for the talented English actress. Ormond parlayed whatever clout she had left and starred in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997), an adaptation of the best-selling Danish novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. Despite the pedigree of acclaimed director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) and a cast featuring the likes of Gabriel Byrne, Tom Wilkinson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Richard Harris, the film was a commercial failure and received mixed reviews. August seemed interested in making an artistic film as opposed to a standard thriller while some fans of the book felt that Ormond was miscast as the titular character. Now that some time has passed since the film’s release and there is some distance from the source material, it can be judged on its own merits.

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By J.D. Lafrance

“For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” – Henry Hill

From his early days making Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese was always fascinated by gangsters. As a child, he had grown up around them and was intrigued by their lifestyle. Goodfellas (1990) was his triumphant return to the subject and to his old neighborhood in New York City. The film would also reunite Scorsese with actors Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro – a combination that proved to be successful both commercially and critically. By all accounts, the film was a labor of love for the filmmaker and his cast and crew. This is abundantly evident in the incredible attention to detail and passion that is contained in every frame of this film. Goodfellas has all the trademarks of a master filmmaker at the top of his game, displaying an unwavering confidence while also telling an extremely entertaining and engaging story as well.

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By J.D. Lafrance

I’ve always been drawn to the horror noir sub-genre – a hybrid of horror and film noir that features downtrodden protagonists immersed in a nightmarish, shadowy underworld fraught with danger at every turn. Instead of the antagonists being simple criminal underworld figures they are quite often beings infused with supernatural powers. Some memorable examples include Angel Heart (1987), The Ninth Gate (1999) and Constantine (2005). One of my favorites is Lord of Illusions (1995), an adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story, “The Last Illusion” by the author himself. The protagonist in both is Harry D’Amour, a private investigator and occult detective that has appeared in several of Barker’s fiction, most notably, albeit briefly, in The Great and Secret Show, a short story entitled “The Lost Souls, and also the novel Everville.

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By J.D. Lafrance

Tim Burton’s films are populated by outsiders and non-conformists with their own unique vision of life that sets them apart from mainstream society. It is this affinity for the disaffected that is perhaps the most personal aspect of his work. The success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) paved the way for Burton’s next feature, Beetlejuice (1988), his calling card – a breakout film that led to his getting the job to direct Batman (1989). It is also one of the purest examples of his distinctive sensibilities – a skewed sense of the world as seen through the eyes of someone who is an outsider.

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