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

by J.D. Lafrance

Scott McGehee and David Siegel are part of a generation of American independent filmmakers that capitalized on the surprise success of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989) at the Sundance Film Festival. That film helped kickstart a very prolific period of indie cinema during the 1990s where the rise in prominence of Sundance and boutique movie studios like Miramax pushed through unusual material, like McGehee and Siegel’s Suture (1993), that wouldn’t normally have been made or distributed. These two filmmakers even managed to get Soderbergh to executive produce their film and he championed it in interviews. Sadly, the studio distributing Suture had no idea how to market this cerebral neo-noir and it quickly faded into obscurity where it still resides to this day. Even back then it was a hard sell with an unconventional premise and no movie stars but should now be regarded as a bold genre experiment.

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By J.D. Lafrance

Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by space travel. The seeds were planted in science fiction movies like Star Wars (1977) but my interest intensified in the early 1980s with the United States Space Shuttle program. If kids in the 1960s and 1970s had the space race between the Americans and the Russians, my generation had the Shuttles – incredible spacecraft that would hurtle into outer space to launch telescopes or rendezvous with space stations. The tragic Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1986 where it exploded 73 seconds into its flight was a sobering reminder of the danger of these endeavors.

My interest in the Space Shuttles dovetailed with the release of The Right Stuff (1983), a historical biopic about the Mercury Seven astronauts that playfully exposed their flaws and celebrated these brave men. Over the years, my interest in the subject continued with films like Apollo 13 (1995) and so when it was announced that a biopic chronicling Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the Moon was being made I was all in.

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By J.D. Lafrance

Somewhere, there’s an alternate universe where James Le Gros is playing recurring Elmore Leonard character Deputy United States Marshal Raylan Givens in a series of television movies instead of Timothy Olyphant in a T.V. series. Watching Le Gros in Pronto (1997) is a study in contrast of styles to what Olyphant would do later in Justified. Airing two years after Get Shorty (1995) was released in theaters, and based on the 1993 novel of the same name, Pronto clearly tries to ape it in style and tone only with less money and star power in front of the camera.

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By J.D. Lafrance

“When you’re approached by a studio, they say ‘We want you to make your own films’ – and then they describe how the project will get financed. These are well-intentioned people; they’re not stupid. But the amount of money they want to get, and the way they want to get it, prohibits me from making my kind of film. That’s why most big movies today are so homogeneous.”– Hal Hartley

It is this sentiment, coming from independent filmmaker Hal Hartley, which may explain the decidedly un-Hollywood kind of films that make up his eclectic body of work. He emerged on the scene in the late 1980s with films that explored the banality of suburban life mixed with the bizarre, often with hilariously ironic results. The stories and their settings that he explored were realistic enough (i.e. the boy-meets-girl tale of The Unbelievable Truth) but they were then contrasted by stylized dialogue delivered in a deadpan style reminiscent of the great stone-face Buster Keaton. His characters often talk in philosophical terms but in very mundane situations that challenge the audience. The way the dialogue is delivered by his actors appears to be awkward but this is done to illustrate the irony of the context that it is spoken in.

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By J.D. Lafrance

In this cynical and jaded world in which we live in idealism and optimism are often mistakenly equated with naiveté or stupidity. This may explain why Tomorrowland (2015) tanked so spectacularly at the box office and was roasted over the coals by critics. Based on the Walt Disney theme land of the same name, the film champions dreamers and creativity. Hoping for a repeat of the successful adaptation of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a wildly popular movie franchise, the studio brought in director Brad Bird, fresh from the box office hit Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus), and cast George Clooney to anchor the film in a supporting role opposite Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride) as the young lead. The studio certainly had all the right elements in place but dropped the ball when it came to marketing Tomorrowland, which is staggering when one realizes how many millions of dollars were spent promoting it in a cryptic way that was completely unnecessary. After all the dust has settled and the post-mortems have been made, the question remains, is the film any good? Obviously, the answer is very subjective. I for one loved it.

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By J.D. Lafrance

“And I think if you look at the movie now, and you don’t know anything about the book, and you get it out of the time that it was released, I think you can see it in a whole different way.” – Brian De Palma, Empire magazine, December 2008

Has enough time passed that Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) can be judged on its own merits? Has enough time passed that its critical and commercial failings don’t matter (if they ever did)? And has enough time passed that its troubled production history, as chronicled in Julie Salamon’s tell-all The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, no longer matters? Perhaps this is a case of going into a film without having read the source material being a good thing as it allows the film to be judged on its own merits.

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Hidalgo

By J.D. Lafrance

Filmmaker Joe Johnston is something of a curious anomaly in Hollywood. He got his start as a protégé of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, adopting their style of filmmaking once he became a director with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). He has since made retro adventure films his forte with the likes of The Rocketeer (1991) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Yet, for some reason, despite several of his films performing well at the box office, Johnston has managed to avoid the plaudits of his mentors. He remains unknown to mainstream audiences and generally ignored by cinephiles as he lacks a flashy, distinctive style and personality. In 2004, he released Hidalgo, which chronicled legendary long distance rider Frank T. Hopkins and his horse and their participation in an annual 3,000 mile race in Arabia, 1891. Marred by claims that it took huge liberties with the actual historical figures and events it was based on, the film was snubbed by critics and barely made back its budget. It’s too bad as Hidalgo is a refreshing straight-forward action/adventure epic.

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by J.D. Lafrance

In the 1980s, Martha Coolidge’s films were a welcome antidote to the dominance of John Hughes’ output. On the surface, her films appear to be quite similar, but whereas Hughes’ films ultimately play it safe and are conservative in nature (i.e. the status quo is preserved), Coolidge’s films champion the outsider in society – for example, Nicolas Cage’s punk rocker hooks up with Deborah Foreman’s Valley girl despite societal pressure in Valley Girl (1983). Real Genius (1985) appears to be just another mindless college comedy like Revenge of the Nerds (1984), but whereas that film had its outsiders ultimately become part of accepted mainstream society, the nerds in Real Genius rebel against it and are proud to be different.

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By J.D. Lafrance

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam once remarked in an interview that “when times are bad, I can’t believe you can live without fantasy or imagination.” This statement seems particularly valid in contemporary society when you realize all of the horrible things that are occurring. One only has to look in the newspapers or watch the news on television to see how rapidly society seems to be collapsing. The strength of Gilliam’s films – from his work with Monty Python to his own films – are their ability to transport the viewer to another world altogether. This does not mean his films leave behind all traces of reality; like any good fairy tale they play with and manipulate reality. To this end, watching a film like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) is akin to reading one of those great fairy tales from your childhood. His film is the cinematic equivalent of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its ability to tell a good story, present colorful and unusual characters, and take us to places we can only dream about. Like these books, the film is set on an epic scale, spanning all realms, from the legendary city of Constantinople, to the Moon, to the insides of a giant sea monster.

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By J.D. Lafrance

With his low-budget revenge movie, Mad Max (1979), Australian filmmaker George Miller created one of the most kinetic action spectacles by choreographing car chases in a way that was unique. They were depicted viscerally, putting you right in the action. The film was a massive success, launching the careers of both Miller and its young star, Mel Gibson. The filmmaker briefly pursued another, unrelated project while turning down several offers from Hollywood before deciding to make a sequel only with much more money that would allow him to push his brand of visual storytelling to a new level. The end result was Mad Max 2 (1981) a.k.a. The Road Warrior, an unrelenting journey into a post-apocalyptic world that would prove to be hugely influential, spawning numerous imitations and two sequels that Miller would helm.

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