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

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By J.D. Lafrance

Created by Robert E. Howard, the character of Conan the Barbarian first appeared in a series of sword and sorcery stories published in pulp magazines, like Weird Tales in 1932. The success of these early stories inspired Howard to complete 21 stories before he committed suicide in 1936. These tales were set during the fictional “Hyborian Age,” which occurred after the fall of Atlantis. Conan was often described as a muscular yet agile man known for his tactical abilities as much as his brawn. Throughout the stories, he wandered the world, getting into adventures under a variety of guises: thief, outlaw, mercenary, and pirate.

It wasn’t until 1970s that plans for a cinematic adaptation began with a young Oliver Stone hired to write the screenplay. The film’s development hit a rocky period until the late ‘70s when John Milius was hired as director and Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast as the titular character. The result was Conan the Barbarian (1982), a violent action/adventure film that embodied the spirit of Howard’s stories as much at its director’s own thematic preoccupations. It was a box office success and helped launch Schwarzenegger’s international career.
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By J.D. Lafrance

By the time he had made Frantic (1988), filmmaker Roman Polanski was in need of a commercial hit at the box office. His previous film Pirates (1986) bombed spectacularly both with audiences and critics. In a canny move, he cast Harrison Ford as the lead actor in his new film. As luck would have it, Ford was in a very interesting place, career-wise. Thanks to the massive success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, he had the clout and the confidence to try riskier films that played around with the public’s perception of him. With Blade Runner (1982), Ford played an emotionally distant cop hunting down replicants in a future dystopia. In Witness (1985), he played a gruff Philadelphia cop who hides out in Amish country when he uncovers corruption in his department. Mosquito Coast (1986) may have been his most challenging role as an inventor who moves his entire family to the jungles of South America and gradually loses his mind.

Finally, he took a stab at comedy with Working Girl (1988) playing a no-nonsense business executive helping a plucky young secretary masquerading as a financial executive broker an ambitious merger deal. Throw in Frantic and you have a pretty diverse collection of films that saw Ford unafraid to play abrasive even sometimes unlikable characters. With Polanski’s film, Ford would be on the director’s turf, thrust in a world of moral ambiguity with a dash of paranoia. It made for a fascinating clash of styles and results in an excellent thriller and something of an under-appreciated work in both men’s filmography.
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By J.D. Lafrance

One of the dangers in adapting a stage play into a film is that you won’t be able to break out of the theatricality inherent with so many plays. Fortunately, film director James Foley seemed to be acutely aware of this when he decided to take on Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), an adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name with the screenplay written by the man himself.
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Tombstone

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By J.D. Lafrance

“A lot of people, a lot of studios, wished Tombstone would just die. Kevin Costner was gearing up his film Wyatt Earp at the same time, and it would have been easier if we’d just gone away. But Tombstone had a lot of things going for it. First and foremost it had me.” – Kurt Russell

Almost every year there seems to invariably be two similarly themed films duking it out for box office supremacy. One does better than the other because it comes out first or has a bigger movie star in it or is just better in quality. In 1989, The Abyss out performed two other underwater alien films, Leviathan and Deepstar Six. A few years later, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) outperformed Robin Hood (1991) thanks to the movie star power of Kevin Costner. In the late 1990s, you had the competing asteroid disaster films with Armageddon (1998) vs. Deep Impact (1998) and the rival erupting volcano thrillers, Dante’s Peak (1997) and Volcano (1997).

In the mid-‘90s, Hollywood was at it again with competing Wyatt Earp biopics: Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994). Despite the former having an earlier release date, the latter featured Costner in the title role of the legendary lawman and with respected screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan behind the camera. In addition, Tombstone was plagued with publicized production problems as its director was fired early during principal photography only to be replaced by another with almost no prep time. Amazingly, against the odds, Tombstone was not only made, but also won the box office showdown over the much longer, slower-paced Wyatt Earp. Audiences preferred the more entertaining, action-packed Tombstone with its fantastic cast of character actors led by none other than Kurt Russell. His film delivered the goods, plain and simple. Despite the absolute critical drubbing it received upon its theatrical release, it should be regarded among the best westerns of the ‘90s alongside the likes of Unforgiven (1992) and Dead Man (1995).
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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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