J.D. Lafrance
8 Movie Collection: Star-Studded Drama DVD Review

8 Movie Collection: Star-Studded Drama

February 6, 2013

Director: Billy Bob Thornton, Shainee Gabel, Noah Baumbach, Campbell Scott, Catherine Hardwicke, Marco Brambilla, Ryan Murphy, Barry Shils,
Starring: Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson, Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Joan Allen, Valentina de Angelis, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, Alicia Silverstone, Benicio del Toro, Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Martha Quinn, Drew Barrymore,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

With All the Pretty Horses (2000), director Billy Bob Thornton set out to make a Heaven’s Gate (1980) for the new millennium by adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. However, movie studio executives took the film away from him and recut it for the multiplexes, whereas Thornton was trying to make an artistic statement. At the heart of the film is a forbidden romance between a wannabe cowboy (Damon) and a beautiful Mexican woman (Penelope Cruz). Gorgeously shot and well acted, All the Pretty Horses feels truncated and needs a longer running time to let the story breathe and the characters to develop.

A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004) is about a burnt-out former literature professor by the name of Bobby Long (Travolta) who lives in the childhood home of one Purslane Hominy Will (Johansson). Upon learning of her mother’s death, Pursy decides to go to New Orleans and reclaim her home only to find Bobby and his disheveled protégé Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) residing there. Life is in a holding pattern for the two men and Pursy’s arrival shakes things up. This is one of those character-driven, slice-of-life independent films that showcased the emerging talent that was Scarlett Johansson, who would also appear in Lost in Translation the same year this film came out. John Travolta is also quite good as the eccentric literature-quoting has been. Not surprisingly, the film’s best scenes feature them together.

Writer/director Noam Baumbach transitioned from making more conventional romantic comedies with The Squid and the Whale (2005), a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama about how the divorce of their parents affects two boys. The dynamic between the deeply dysfunctional family members is at once hilariously observed and, at times, uncomfortably real. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play the intellectual writer parents whose not so passive aggressive sniping goes from amusing to hurtful on a dime. This is a coming-of-age story seen mostly from the perspective of the two children, played well by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline. Baumbach shows how each child sides with a certain parent and then changes allegiances over the course of the film.

Set in the picturesque state of New Mexico, Off the Map (2005) is a coming-of-age tale focusing on an 11-year-old girl named Bo (de Angelis). Her parents are colorful folks to say the least. Her mother (Allen) gardens in the nude while her father (Sam Elliott) suffers from crippling depression. Their lives are disrupted by the arrival of an IRS agent (Jim True-Frost) who is supposed to audit the family. Gradually, they and the town work their magic on the man and he abandons the audit. Valentina de Angelis is excellent as the precocious Bo and Sam Elliott is wonderfully cast against type as the mute father. This is one of those films where the location is a character unto itself.

Lords of Dogtown (2005) takes us back to the heady days of 1975 when the Venice Beach locals would surf the dangerous waters where you could easily get brained by a piece of the nearby pier. These are tough kids growing up in a tough neighborhood and out of it came a group of young surfers who adopted the same style they used to attack the waves to skate asphalt and concrete: Jay Adams (Hirsch), Tony Alva (Rasuk) and Stacy Peralta (John Robinson). One of the reasons why this film works so well is because of the superb casting. The actors who play the three lead Z-Boys are dead ringers for their real-life counterparts. In fact, the entire cast looks and sounds like the real people. In particular, Emile Hirsch is excellent as Jay Adams, a naturally gifted skater who comes from a troubled home. Hirsch is wonderfully cast against type as an edgy, brooding teen — it’s a world away from his naïve dreamer in The Girl Next Door (2004). This film will bring back a lot of memories for people who grew up and skated during these years, making this movie more than just a simple retread of the Z-Boys documentary.

Excess Baggage (1997) is one of those odd career choices that makes you wonder just what the actors were thinking when they agreed to do it. Case in point: Alicia Silverstone, red hot after starring in Clueless (1995), and Benicio del Toro, fresh from his memorable turn in The Usual Suspects (1995), decided to star opposite each other in this forgettable romantic comedy. Starved for attention from her father, an annoying rich girl (Silverstone) orchestrates her own kidnapping. However, part way through the process the car she stashes herself in is stolen by a slick car thief (Del Toro). Much inane hilarity ensues. The biggest problem with this film is that the two leads have zero chemistry together.

Set in the 1970s, Running with Scissors (2006) features Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross), a young man who has always had a close relationship with his mother (Bening). She dreams of becoming a famous writer while his father (Alec Baldwin) is a busy teacher and an alcoholic who never seems to have time for his son. Augusten’s parents are deeply unhappy people and as he grows older, he sees them fight more and more with the intensity increasing. All he wants is to be part of a normal family. He and his parents start seeing a therapist by the name of Dr. Finch (Cox) who, at their first session, asks for a plate of baloney and asks Augusten’s mother about her bowel movements. Running with Scissors has to be one of the oddest coming-of-age stories ever put on film, shifting effortlessly between absurd humor and uncomfortable drama reminiscent of films from the 1970s, like Brewster McCloud (1970) and Harold and Maude (1971). Based on this film, writer/director Ryan Murphy would be the ideal candidate to do a proper adaptation of Richard Farina’s oddball college novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me as he captures the same kind of surreal landscape with no “normal” characters for the audience to identify with.

Motorama (1991) is a quirky road movie about a 10-year-old troublemaker named Gus. He runs away from a home occupied by an abusive father and hits the open road financed by the contents of his piggy bank. Along the way, he meets a colorful assortment of oddballs while collecting cards from Chimera gas stations that will spell out, “Motorama” and he hopes will result in winning the $500 million jackpot. Motorama seems to have its own internal logic, which it follows like some kind of fevered dream. The people that the kid encounters act like they’ve just wandered in from a completely different film, which only adds to the overall strange vibe.

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J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 72%



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