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

By J.D. Lafrance

People have been fascinated with the enigma that is the Bermuda Triangle for decades. It is a region marked by the Florida coast and the islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas, a “danger zone that seems to swallow ships and planes,” as a vintage episode of the In Search Of… television show from the 1970s aptly described it. It is an area of 60,000 square miles where many planes and ships have mysteriously vanished over the years. Science has tried to explain the phenomenon but compelling anecdotal information endures and continues interest in it.

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by J.D. Lafrance

Coming early on in his career, The Lineup (1958) is the kind of no-nonsense crime film that director Don Siegel excelled at and, in some ways, anticipated the same approach he took to his remake of The Killers (1964) years later. He wastes no time as The Lineup starts off with an exciting chase as a taxi cab driver tries to get away from a pier full of disembarking passengers with a stolen suitcase, runs over a cop and is shot and killed. Inside the case is a statuette containing $100,000 worth of heroin. The two detectives investigating the case – Lt. Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Inspector Al Quine (Emile Meyer) – return the case to its owner in the hopes that he’ll lead them to a narcotics ring.

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By J.D. Lafrance

Anticipation was high when it was announced that Oliver Stone would be filming a biopic about the popular rock band the Doors. With Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), he was gaining a reputation for being the premiere chronicler of America in the 1960s so it made sense that he would tackle that decade’s most famous (and infamous) musical acts. The question remained, what kind of approach would Stone take on the material? Many books had been written by journalists, people that knew him and even by members of the band itself, all with their own perspective and opinion on what the Doors meant to them and to popular culture. The world found out what Stone’s take was on March 1, 1991 when The Doors was released to wildly mixed reviews and strong box office. While many critics felt that Val Kilmer delivered an excellent performance as the band’s lead singer Jim Morrison, they felt that the film dwelled too much on his darker aspects and excesses and that Stone played fast and loose with the facts.

One should look at The Doors much like Stone’s subsequent film JFK (1991), as a mythical take on historical figures and events and not as documentary-like authenticity. I find The Doors to be a big, bloated, fascinating mess of a film that reflects the tumultuous times of the ‘60s. Despite the miscasting of a few roles and the rather one-sided view we get of Morrison, Stone’s film is a beautifully-shot acid trip through the ‘60s with some of the best choreographed live concert sequences every recreated on film. Best of all, it brought the Doors’ music back into the mainstream, reminded everyone what a brilliant band they were, and how much they influenced and reflected their times.

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by J.D. Lafrance

In 1969, two important westerns came out examining the end of the Wild West in very different ways. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was a blood-soaked elegy to its aging protagonists who found themselves increasingly marginalized in a world that was passing them by. George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid also featured bank robbers finding it increasingly harder to ply their trade albeit in a lighter vein, emphasizing the undeniable chemistry between its two lead actors, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Hill helped create a classic buddy action film that would shape and influence the genre for years to come.

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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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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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