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

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By J.D. Lafrance

The 1990s was a good decade for Jennifer Jason Leigh. She was not only prolific, flirting with mainstream movies like Backdraft (1991), but also at the height of her creative powers, turning out one astonishing performance after another, disappearing into her roles with chameleon-like proficiency. It was also the decade where she tackled her most challenging roles in a way that threatened to alienate the critics and her fans. In Georgia (1995), she played a struggling musician that has the heart but not the talent as evident in an excruciatingly awful cover of a Van Morrison song that goes on for so long that it tests the resolve of even the most die-hard Leigh fan.

She also tackled stylized, almost impenetrable accents in The Hudsucker Proxy (1993), the Coen brothers’ homage to screwball comedies, and her crowning achievement, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), where she portrayed legendary writer Dorothy Parker with incredible accuracy. The film was directed by Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph, a talented filmmaker with a frustratingly uneven filmography. With Altman attached as producer, Rudolph was able to assemble an impressive cast – a who’s who of ‘90s character actors, like Campbell Scott, Lili Taylor and James LeGros; and survivors from the 1980s, like Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Beals and Andrew McCarthy. It is to Rudolph’s credit that he is able to handle such a large and diverse cast, so much so that a cheat sheet is almost required in order to keep track of who everyone is. Admittedly, Rudolph plays large portions of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle fast and loose, letting this talented cast run with their characters. For the most part it works, especially the scenes that take place in the Algonquin Hotel.
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By J.D. Lafrance

No other filmmaker other than Charles Burnett, John Sayles or Mike Leigh excels at telling stories about real people like Victor Nunez. He has been called the working man’s auteur and with one exception, his films capture the essence of Florida culture in a refreshingly understated way that is increasingly rare at time when big budget blockbusters and quirky independent films reside at polar ends of the spectrum with very little in-between. His films are populated by protagonists that are outsiders reinventing themselves in Florida. Nunez has said that he is fascinated by “people who have somehow strayed from the world, and they’re trying to decide whether or not they’ll be able to get back in again.” This is evident in the conflicted reporter torn between two sides in A Flash of Green (1984), the grandfather protecting his family from dangerous criminals in Ulee’s Gold (1997) and this is certainly true of Ruby in Paradise (1993), which chronicles a young woman’s journey from an abusive relationship in Tennessee to her new life working in a souvenir shop in Panama City.
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By J.D. Lafrance

If Michael Mann were to ever direct a racing car film it would probably resemble Le Mans (1971), a passion project for its star Steve McQueen, himself an avid racing car enthusiast. Much like Mann’s recent work, Le Mans eschews conventional narrative storytelling in favor of an impressionistic approach with an emphasis on visual storytelling and a lack of backstory in favor of its characters living in the present. In some respects, McQueen is the auteur of the film, committing so much time and resources that it bankrupted him because the actor refused to compromise the vision he had for it – the beauty and a sense of purity in racing. McQueen believed in the relationship between man and machine and the notion that you’re not only racing against an opponent, but also yourself in terms of mental and physical endurance, which Le Mans explores in fascinating ways.

Known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it is the oldest active endurance racing sports car race in the world. It began in 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France and occurs during the European summer in June. The race starts in mid-afternoon, runs through the night and finishes the next day at the same time it started. Racing teams maintain a tricky balancing act between speed and the car’s capacity to run for 24 hours. Also, the drivers are put to the test, often spending more than two hours racing before stopping in the pits to switch control over to a relief driver.
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By J.D. Lafrance

“What I’d like to do today is get your version of what happened,” says a mild-mannered, middle-aged attorney (Jerry Hardin). “Oh? You mean the truth,” replies a rather small, aging Chinese man who identifies himself as bus driver, Egg Shen (Victor Wong). The attorney remains skeptical as his potential client calmly describes his belief in Chinese black magic, and other supernatural phenomenon. As if to prove his point, the man holds up his hands so that they are parallel to one another. Suddenly, small bolts of blue electricity begin to flow from each palm, much to the attorney’s amazement and Shen’s bemusement. “That was nothing,” Shen states. “But that’s how it always begins. Very small.” And with this intriguing, tell-me-a-scary-story teaser, John Carpenter’s film, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), takes us on a ride into the heart of ancient Chinese lore and mythology.

Carpenter, always the maverick director with a knack for exploring offbeat subject matter (see They Live and In the Mouth of Madness), created a film that simultaneously parodies and pays homage to the kung-fu genre. This often-maligned genre is given a new level of respectability that is rarely seen in Hollywood. Gone are the ethnic slurs, the insulting stereotypes and that annoying quasi-Chinese music that always seems to accompany representations of Asians in past mainstream features. Big Trouble takes great care in presenting funny and intelligent characters without caring whether they are Chinese or not. What is of paramount importance to Carpenter is telling a good story. He created an entertaining piece of fantasy that cleverly manipulated the conventions of the action film with often-comical results.
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In-Country

by J.D. Lafrance

In the 1980s, I was obsessed with the Vietnam War. My gateway drug, as it was for a lot of people I suspect, was Platoon (1986). After seeing Oliver Stone’s film, I wanted more information. I read all sorts of books about the subject, from fiction like Going After Cacciato, about a soldier who goes AWOL, to memoirs like Chickenhawk, about a helicopter pilot’s experiences during the war. Hell, I even read the TimeLife books, collected Marvel Comics’ groundbreaking series The ‘Nam and watched television shows like Tour of Duty and China Beach. This fascination extended to depictions of the fallout of the war – how it changed the people that came back, men that suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or from the effects of being subjected to Agent Orange while over there.
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by J.D. Lafrance

“I felt that the film was almost an essay, an education, to the audience, to say, ‘Stop looking at everything exactly the same way.’” – Robert Altman

When The Long Goodbye was released in 1973, United Artists promptly bungled its ad campaign. Robert Altman’s film radically reworked Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name and the studio had no idea how to market the offbeat movie. It polarized critics and promptly disappeared from theaters. People weren’t ready for its offbeat vibe and the way it satirized Los Angeles culture. However, it was Elliott Gould’s unusual take on private investigator Philip Marlowe that drew the lion’s share of people’s criticism. His loose, easy-going style flew in the face of the traditional interpretation made famous by Humphrey Bogart and was tantamount to heresy among cinephiles but in retrospect paved the way for a film like the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), which also confounded the mainstream with its own eccentric take on West Coast culture.
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By J.D. Lafrance

Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) is a film that asks the burning question: is police brutality ever justified? It is when you’re dealing with the likes of Al Capone and Frank Nitti – gangsters that had no problem blowing up children and killing nebbish accountants to get what they wanted. The film doesn’t exactly adhere to historical fact opting instead to go with John Ford’s famous credo of printing the legend and in doing so raising the characters and their exploits to mythic status. De Palma’s adaptation of Eliot Ness’ 1957 memoir of the same name had all the makings of a powerhouse production destined for greatness. It featured a screenplay written by legendary playwright David Mamet, expert cinematographer Stephen H. Burum was behind the camera, master composer Ennio Morricone was scoring the film, and Robert De Niro and Sean Connery were signed on to play larger-than-life characters. The result was an exciting, action-packed epic that helped revitalize De Palma’s struggling career (after the critical and commercial failure of Wise Guys) and earned Connery his first Academy Award.
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