Judge Norman Short is a fan of Lawrence Kasdan. Read his review of this documentary detailing the career of the writer/director.
The biggest undersung director around.
For some reason, I've never felt like Lawrence Kasdan, director of films such as Silverado, Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist, and The Big Chill has never gotten the respect he deserves. He's been nominated for four Oscars, has never won, but has been given a Razzie. He has written the screenplays for some of the best-known modern films of all time, and everyone in Hollywood wants to work with him. So it is some vindication that the AFI series of The Directors has added him to the list of greats. Now the hour-long profile of this wonderful writer and director is available on DVD, and it is my pleasure to give it a look.
Facts of the Case
Lawrence Kasdan's career began as a screenwriter, and with quite a bang. His first screenplays included The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The attention garnered from these mega-hits enabled him to begin his directing career in 1981 with Body Heat, a noirish effort that won critical acclaim. From there he wrote the screenplay for Return of the Jedi while finishing work on his second film, The Big Chill, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Not willing to fall into any rut or be put into a niche, he ventured far afield for his next film, Silverado, a rollicking Western that remains one of my favorite films. Next came The Accidental Tourist, which earned him two more Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Never satisfied, he moved next to the black comedy I Love You to Death, which wasn't so well received. He then went to Grand Canyon, which earned him yet another Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. Since then, he has gone into romantic comedy, offbeat comedy, and another western. He doesn't use focus groups; he writes and directs his films the way he wants, and hopes the success and critical acclaim follows.
Two things really struck me as interesting in the hour-long biography on this DVD: how many actors like him, and how refreshingly honest he is about his work. The time he takes on rehearsals and ensuring every actor knows his character inside and out endears him to the actors, as well as his calm, evenhanded approach to filmmaking. No frantic screaming on the set here. At the same time I was surprised to hear Kasdan say when he didn't like one of his films, and how he wished he'd either done it differently or not at all. This is never more apparent than when he speaks about Wyatt Earp, the film that has been considered his worst and the reason for his Razzie award. That was also the first and last time he allowed a focus group to influence how one of his films were made.
Quite a few well known stars have appeared in Kasdan's films over the years, and most of them speak up for him in the documentary. Kevin Kline has appeared in most of his films, and speaks so well of him that you know there is a personal friendship there. Other stars heaping praise on the man and his talent include Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Ed Begley Jr., Bill Pullman, and Geena Davis, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Accidental Tourist. All of their points of view are added to Kasdan's own and really helped me understand how he and his films work. I never felt like this was just one big promotional love-fest, and that the opinions and feelings were genuine. One thing every one of them said: every actor in Hollywood wants to work with him.
The American Film Institute (AFI) sponsors these director biographies, which are then released on DVD through Fox Lorber, or Winstar as it is now called. This distributor fills a niche market with indie films, documentaries, and other entertainment discs, and fills it well. They don't often get really good films to distribute, so I'm always happy when I see them get something like this that they can do well.
The interview footage is all in full frame, and the picture quality is quite good. Images are sharp and clear, with accurate colors and everything you could ask for. Interspersed with the interviews are cuts from his films, which are shown in non-anamorphic widescreen, and the picture quality isn't so great. Often this footage is faded, perhaps scratched up, and not very pleasant. Still, those clips are only there to illustrate parts of his work, and are not representative of how his films look on DVD. To this I can easily attest, since I own several of them. The soundtrack is an uninspired two-channel surround, but this is almost entirely dialogue anyway. You can clearly understand what is being said, and that is all that matters here. A filmography and weblink make up the extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can't really think of a thing to complain about concerning the documentary. I've enjoyed his work immensely over the years, and as it turns out the films that I didn't like as much (such as his screenplay of The Bodyguard, which he didn't direct, and Wyatt Earp) he feels the same way about and admits to it. It is ironic that The Bodyguard, which both he and I found to be flawed, has earned over $400 million worldwide. The only problem I have with the disc is the lack of subtitles for the hearing impaired. This should be a given on all DVD products at this point.
Few filmmakers have been able to do such a variety of genres and styles of film, and remain so intelligent and appealing in the process. From Body Heat to Mumford his body of work can stand the test of scrutiny and time. He is a brilliant screenwriter by anyone's definition, and his talent is even further enhanced when he can also direct what he has written. This documentary will give you a great overview of his work, and probably alert you to watch a film or two you've missed. I heartily recommend a rental, and for real Kasdan fans like me, a purchase. At a retail price under $10, you won't be sorry.
Winstar is fined for the lack of English subtitles that do not enable the hearing impaired to also enjoy this fine documentary, but Lawrence Kasdan is released with my apologies. Now if he wouldn't mind casting a film critic in one of his films…
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