REEL 13
Best Movies by Farr
  • March 31, 2010

    Not Just Little Caesar

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s salute to the surprisingly versatile Edward G. Robinson.


    Double Indemnity (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gorgeous schemer Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) enlists a besotted insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to draw up a life-insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge – and then kill him. The murder goes as planned, but the two lovers lose faith in each other’s motives when they face suspicious claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose queries trigger a fatal game of cat and mouse.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the quintessential noir films, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” is a masterpiece of stark atmosphere and carefully stylized suspense. The talented Barbara Stanwyck, a familiar face in the 1940s noir universe, assumes her role with feline deviousness, while “My Three Sons” TV dad Fred MacMurray – narrating the film via flashback – brilliantly plays against type. Raymond Chandler’s screenplay sizzles with hard-boiled repartee and the great Edward G. Robinson is aces as always as the dogged investigator hot on the lovers’ trail. Sinister, tense, and cynical, Wilder’s “Indemnity” is riveting film suspense.


    The Stranger (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unbeknownst to his comely young bride Mary (Loretta Young), East Coast prep-school teacher Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) is actually Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal in hiding. When a German visitor to their sleepy Connecticut town turns up dead, federal gumshoe Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) begins poking around, threatening to bring Rankin’s crimes out of the closet.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The conventional wisdom is that Welles made “Stranger” to prove he could churn out a Hollywood studio picture on time and with little fuss. That he certainly does. And while the director himself was no big fan of his 1946 Nazi noir thriller, he underestimated his efforts here, as he coaxes fine performances from his stellar cast, especially Robinson (playing against type as a war-crimes investigator), Young, and Konstantin Shayne as the ill-fated visitor. If for no other reason, see this for the final scene at a clock tower, a well-engineered climax that will really leave you hanging!


    Key Largo (1948)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    One of the brink of a huge storm, WWII vet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits a disheveled hotel in the titular island town to pay his respects to Nora (Lauren Bacall), the widow of a deceased war buddy. Run by Nora’s father James (John Barrymore), the hotel is playing host to some pretty seedy urban types, and Frank soon discovers why: infamous mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his men have slinked back into the country and temporarily seized control of the establishment.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, Huston’s “Key Largo” is a classic 1940s noir featuring taut direction and indelible performances from Bogart and Robinson as the menacing Rocco. In a cast that also boasts Bacall, Oscar-winner Claire Trevor as Rocco’s drunken mistress, and Lionel Barrymore as the cantankerous hotelier, it’s Rocco’s sadistic, savage power that occupies center stage. Bogie is comfortably in star mode as the taciturn good guy who comes through in the clinch. Don’t miss that ending.


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  • March 22, 2010

    Under Surveillance

    by John Farr

    Three films about voyeurism and suspicion.


    The Conversation (1974)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Detached and distrustful of others, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a deeply private, virtually friendless man whose life is consumed by his special brand of freelance intelligence work. Hired by corporate director Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to monitor the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), Caul is troubled by the fragments of talk he illicitly captures on tape and begins obsessively piecing them together, suspecting a murder is in the works.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Made before he began work on “The Godfather II,” Coppola’s prescient, haunting drama is a brilliant character study set in a pungent atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy. Hackman is the dark heart of the film, playing a profoundly solitary man tortured by guilt, complicity, and his own inability to trust anyone, including girlfriend Amy, sweetly played by Garr. Coppola’s most artful film, “The Conversation” is dark, brooding, and mysterious, but absorbing nonetheless.


    Caché (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Television interviewer Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), live a comfortably placid bourgeois life in a Paris condominium, along with their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). But when someone begins to terrorize them by leaving voyeuristic videotapes on their doorstep, along with gruesome stick-figure drawings that appear meaningless yet menacing, their lives are irrevocably disrupted. Who’s watching, and what do they want?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Austrian director and arch provocateur Michael Haneke crafts a compelling, suspenseful thriller in Caché, deftly suggesting the menace of global terrorism by locating it in the troubled domestic experience of an iconic nuclear family. Auteuil and Binoche are both superb as the couple ripped apart by a long-dormant secret that slowly bubbles to the surface when Georges confronts a horrific incident in his early childhood. Haneke really notches up the tension, relieving it (momentarily) in a kitchen scene that will literally steal your breath away. Intelligent, enigmatic, and shocking, Caché is can’t-miss cinema.


    The Lives of Others (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After seeing a stage drama by celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), Stasi agent Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Uhlrich Muhe) decides to place the writer under surveillance at the suggestion of a government minister (Thomas Thieme) who privately lusts after Dreymans lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler quickly learns that Dreyman is ultra-patriotic, but as the GDR begins to crack down on his artist friends, his loyalties begin to shiftand so do Wieslers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2006, this brisk yet elegantly plotted political thriller concerns a highly disciplined agent of the East German secret police who becomes emotionally involved in the life of one of his suspected dissident targets-though they never meet. In a stoic, tight-lipped performance, Ulrich Muhe is terrific as the cold, unhappy policeman who experiences a personal catharsis after monitoring Dreyman. Koch and Gedeck are wonderful, too, as the lovers doomed to suffer at the hands of abusive officials. Suspenseful and moving, “Others” is an aching tribute to the spirit of love and guarantee of individual rights we too often take for granted.


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  • March 22, 2010

    Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

    by John Farr

    A salute to three of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s great ones.


    Oklahoma! (1955)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fox introduced the new singing team of MacRae and Jones in this buoyant musical, adapted from the hit play that launched Rodgers and Hammerstein as a songwriting team .The movie follows the round-about romance of a young couple in the rough frontier days of the early 1900s. Cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) has eyes for Oklahoma farm girl Laurey (Shirley Jones), but so does brutish farmhand Jud Frye (Rod Steiger). When Curly rescues Laurey from Jud’s ungentlemanly advances at a social, he also wins her hand, but Jud hasn’t sung his last tune just yet.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Though the film is long and contains a fairly high corn factor, it’s also visually stunning, and truly soars whenever the music and dancing starts, with peerless renditions of “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “The Surrey With The Fringe On The Top,” and the immortal title tune. The dance numbers, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, are original and exuberant, while Steiger and Gloria Grahame turn in fine performances, respectively playing the dastardly Jud and the naively amorous Ado Annie, “the girl who can’t say no.”


    The King and I (1956)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In the mid-1860′s, The King of Siam (Yul Brynner) finds himself with many children to educate and care for, so he hires Anna (Deborah Kerr), an English governess, for the position. What he does not count on is her firm and independent approach to the job, which creates interesting interaction between lady and monarch.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A triumphant screen adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway play turned Yul Brynner into a star. Sets and costumes are breathtaking, the story touching and each song in the lilting score still enchants. Deborah Kerr makes a perfect Anna (with help from Marni Nixon, who dubbed her singing voice), a woman strong enough to stand up to– and perhaps love — a king. This movie will sparkle eternally.


    The Sound of Music (1965)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Joyous, honey-voiced Austrian nun Maria (Julie Andrews) becomes governess to seven children at the outset of World War II and eventually falls for their handsome widower father, Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). The Nazis are on the move, however, and force the Von Trapps to flee. Will the happy new family survive?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Shot in pristine color on location near Salzburg-and featuring that dizzying opening shot of Maria belting out the title tune from a verdant hilltop-”Music” fully deserves its reputation as one of the most popular films of all time. The daisy-fresh Andrews is simply terrific, whether she’s acting or singing, and the songs-”Do Re Mi,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and “My Favorite Things”-have become part of our cultural heritage. Adapted from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway play, the film might be a bit schmaltzy at moments, but in all, it remains utterly irresistible. The hills are still alive-and your singing pipes will be too-with the wondrous “Sound of Music.”


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  • March 15, 2010

    Diner Movies

    by John Farr

    Movies set in diners.


    The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) rolls into a roadside diner and meets portly, good-natured owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), who offers him a job as a fix-it man. Frank’s not too interested until he gets a look at Nick’s white-hot wife, Cora (Lana Turner), a smoldering beauty trapped in a dead-end existence. Almost immediately, they become passionate, obsessive lovers, and matter-of-factly hatch a plan to get rid of Nick-for good.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Tay Garnett’s sizzling “Postman,” adapted from the pulp novel by James M. Cain, concerns fate, temptation, and the kind of irrational urges that drive people to murder. A gorgeous Lana Turner bewitches as the femme fatale, and enigmatic, underrated actor John Garfield plays the regular Joe who falls into her clutches. Garnett’s direction is solid and tantalizingly suggestive, as when Frank spots a lipstick rolling across the floor moments before he lays eyes on Cora. Garnett’s “Postman” delivers the goods.


    Five Easy Pieces (1970)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Disaffected, hard-drinking oil rigger Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is not what he appears at first sight: Born into a patrician clan from Puget Sound, Bobby has turned his back on bourgeois comforts and a promising career as a classical pianist for life on the road with dim-witted girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Bobby’s drawn back into the family fold, however, when he learns his father Nicholas (William Challee) is dying.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the definitive, highly acclaimed films of the early-70′s New American Cinema, Bob Rafelson’s edgy, deep character study features complex and courageous performances from both Nicholson and Black. As an existentially pained outcast of upper-middle-class breeding, Jack’s pent-up Bobby is especially absorbing to watch, as he denigrates Rayette’s crass singing efforts or spars with a waitress over the vagaries of a chicken-salad sandwich. A moody portrait of alienation and unresolved pain, Rafelson’s Oscar-nominated “Pieces” will stick with you.


    Diner (1982)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Levinson’s break-through movie takes us back to Baltimore, 1959, and into the lives of several high-school pals adjusting to young adulthood. The group includes Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), nervous about an upcoming marriage, Shrevie and Beth (Daniel Stern and Ellen Barkin), who’ve taken the plunge and are having a rough patch, Tim, a boozing rich kid (Kevin Bacon), and Boogie (Mickey Rourke), a sweet-natured guy with a gambling problem. The diner is their mainstay, the place they convene to break bread and discuss the issues of the day. Around this sanctuary we track their individual struggles, and with them, take comfort that whatever happens, there’s always the diner.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Levinson’s vivid, heartfelt ensemble comedy provided an outstanding showcase for up-and-comers Rourke, Stern, Guttenberg, Barkin, and Bacon. The script is funny and knowing, and the natural, often overlapping flow of dialogue gives off the authentic feel of improvisation. Levinson recreates the city of his youth with loving detail. A rich human comedy with a big heart.


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  • March 8, 2010

    Isolation

    by John Farr

    Three films on loneliness and isolation.


    Umberto D. (1952)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    An aging pensioner struggling to make ends meet in inflationary post-war Italy, Umberto D. (Carlo Battisti) is a despairing man who faces an uncertain future. Receiving threats of eviction from his cold, uncaring landlady and desperately seeking to raise the needed money to no avail, he can only rely on his one remaining friend, a small dog named Flike.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Portraying the plight of the elderly dispossessed in an acknowledged masterpiece of the neorealist style, De Sica’s “Umberto D.” may surpass his own “Bicycle Thief” for heartbreaking poignancy. What in less skillful hands could have been treacly melodrama becomes instead a wrenchingly honest tale about a forgotten human being searching in vain for some shred of human kindness. Half a century later, “Umberto D.” remains a monumental achievement of simple, eloquent storytelling.


    The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Left on his own when a close friend is institutionalized, deaf-mute John Singer (Alan Arkin) moves to a small town in the Deep South, where he soon befriends a troubled adolescent girl, Mick (Locke), and a colorful cast of misfits, including an alcoholic ne’er-do-well (Stacy Keach) and an embittered black doctor (Percy Rodriguez). Spilling their secrets to the equable Singer, the townsfolk take for granted this saintly mute’s presence in their lives-until it’s too late.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on Carson McCullers’s bittersweet novel, and gorgeously lensed by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe, Miller’s “Hunter” is the affecting tale of a man who enriches the lives of everyone around him without (quite literally) asking for anything in return. The interactions between Oscar nominees Arkin and Locke (just 20 at the time) are particularly touching (they bond over classical music), but the film is also notable for fine early performances by Keach and Cicely Tyson, playing Rodriguez’s estranged daughter. Delicately grappling with poverty and all forms of intolerance, this “Hunter” has got a lot of heart.


    Taxi Driver (1976)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Vietnam vet turned Manhattan cabbie, is an angry, forgotten man, and he’s about to break. His work takes him into the cesspool of the city, in contact with various lowlifes, including a pimp named Sport (Keitel), who protects child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis befriends. He then takes one last stab at a better life, courting lovely campaign aide Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). But it’s soon clear he doesn’t belong in her world, and Bickle’s final disintegration is at hand.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scorsese’s dark vision of human alienation in an urban wasteland captures the seaminess of pre-Giuliani Manhattan, and De Niro’s career-making performance as Bickle is haunting, recalling those real-life outcasts who have used violent crime to tell an oblivious world: “I was here!”. Stunningly directed and acted, this picture is every bit as disturbing now as when released.Brilliant, but not for the faint of heart.


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  • March 1, 2010

    Parents and (Grown) Children

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s picks for films about the relationships between elder parents and their adult children.


    Tokyo Story (1953)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Frail, elderly couple Tomi and Shukishi (Chieko Higashiyama and Chishu Ryu) set off from their rural village to visit their children in the hustle-bustle world of modern-day Tokyo. But when they arrive, doctor son Koichi (So Yamamura) and beauty-salon proprietor Shige (Haruko Sugimura) are too busy to visit and send the disappointed old folks to a health resort. Only their daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) takes time to show them the highlights of the city. Yet later, an unexpected illness leads the elder children to regret their selfish inattention.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the enduring classics by celebrated master Ozu, this melancholic dissection of family dynamics in postwar Japan may sound simplistic, but “Story” packs an emotional punch as it observes the erosion of traditional values in modern lifeways. Among a uniformly strong cast, Higashiyama and Ryu give low-key, heartbreaking performances as the jilted parents-who seem bewildered as much by the clamor of the city as by their children’s inhospitable behavior. “Story” may be understated, but Ozu’s quiet, immobile visual style and deft direction reflect the nuances of everyday existence like no one else.


    The Graduate (1967)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A model son and newly minted college graduate, Ben Braddock (Dennis Hoffman) is proudly paraded around his parents’ friends, who congratulate him heartily. But inside, Ben feels numb. He soon gets involved with his mother’s sexually frustrated best friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), then creates a combustible chain reaction by falling for her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the signature films of the 1960s, this feature introduced the world to Hoffman and gave Bancroft a racy role she played with marvelous feline cunning. This sublime black comedy transcends its period, speaking to new generations of alienated youth beginning to navigate a discordant, dysfunctional adult world. The supporting cast, including deft character players William Daniels and Murray Hamilton, are note-perfect, and that Simon & Garfunkel score still stirs the soul. A must for repeat viewings.


    Lovers and Other Strangers (1970)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The occasion of Mike and Susan’s wedding (Michael Brandon and Bonnie Bedelia) is pretext for examination of love via their relationship and those surrounding them, particularly his brother’s failing marriage and the dysfunctional but enduring unions of their respective parents (his: Castellano and Arthur, hers: Young and Leachman). The result is a farcical glimpse into the infinite variations on the necessary but complex mess we call love.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Cy Howard’s knowing, often side-splitting ensemble piece benefits from stand-out turns by Gig Young (as the bride’s philandering father), Anne Jackson (as the object of his adulterous affections), and Richard Castellano as the groom’s awkward but well-meaning Dad. Bob Dishy almost steals the movie as a would-be Casanova. Wonderful early “70s flavor, and look for a young Diane Keaton as the groom’s unhappy sister-in-law.


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  • February 22, 2010

    Culture Clash

    by John Farr

    Guess who’s coming to dinner?


    Hester Street (1975)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After emigrating from Russia in the late 1800s, Jewish immigrant Jake (Steven Keats) has shed all the outer signs of his heritage, including side locks and traditional clothing, and settled into a bustling, profitable life on New York’s Lower East Side. So he is less than thrilled when his wife Giti (Carol Kane) joins him five years later, and seems unwilling to relinquish her Old World values. She, in turn, is dismayed by the profound change that has taken place in Jake.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A low-key, moving story about the conflict between tradition and modernity as it is played out in the confines of a marriage, Silver’s “Hester Street” is a lovely period piece that earned newcomer Kane an Oscar nomination for her sensitive portrayal of Giti, who must cope not only with Jake’s cultural transformation, but the fact of his new lover as well. Silver went on to become a busy movie director, but her authentic evocation of a woman’s struggles in turn-of-the-century New York in this quietly assured debut remains her finest work to date. Made on a modest budget, “Hester Street” has a homemade feel that perfectly suits its subject.


    The Namesake (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After an arranged marriage in 1970s Calcutta, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) moves with his bride Ashima (Tabu) to New York City in hopes of a bright future as an engineer. The adjustment is hard on Ashima, a homesick Hindi speaker only barely fluent in English, but they persevere. Years later, their Americanized teenage children Sonia (Sahira Nair) and eldest son Gogol (Kal Penn) present a wholly new challenge, as they resent their parents’ conservative values and seem disconnected from their Indian heritage. But family ties prove hard to break.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, Nair’s chronicle of the Indian-American immigrant experience is sensitive, intelligent, and surprisingly true-to-life, especially as it focuses on the rebellious Gogol’s conflicted relationship with Ashoke, whom he neither respects nor seems willing to understand. When he acquires a perky WASP girlfriend at Yale, Gogol finds himself poised between the world he wants to dissociate from (old India) and the one he feels he belongs to (mainstream America). Wisdom arrives, as it often does, in the form of a crisis, and Nair makes sure we earn the catharsis her excellent young actor eventually undergoes.


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  • February 22, 2010

    Feminist Films

    by John Farr

    John’s salute to empowered women characters.


    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Young widow Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is left to make a new life for herself and her young son, with no prospects and precious little money. With Alice harboring vague hopes of becoming a singer, she and her boy take an eventful road-trip west. Watching their challenging but colorful journey unfold is as satisfying as the hopeful outcome they ultimately achieve.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Here Martin Scorsese branches out into fresh cinematic territory, a world away from the gritty, urban, ethnic male preserves of “Mean Streets”. Yet the personal, heartfelt quality of “Alice” helps the director score a bulls-eye. The gifted Burstyn, noble yet far from glamorous, seems to personify every average woman forced to face a new life chapter on her own, while singer/actor Kristofferson helps spark some divine chemistry as Alice’s new, no- nonsense boyfriend. But Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s real-life Ma) nearly steals the picture playing Alice’s hard-edged waitress colleague, Flo. Also look for a young, predictably precocious Jodie Foster in a small role.


    The Goodbye Girl (1977)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dancer/divorcee Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) is raising a precocious daughter on her own, and suddenly learns that her recently departed actor boyfriend has leased their apartment right out from under her to yet another actor, one Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss). After some predictable conflict on Elliot’s unexpected arrival, Paula and the new thespian in her life form an uneasy truce and start sharing the apartment. Cupid takes care of the rest.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Beyond Neil Simon’s sharp, knowing script, both Dreyfuss and Mason shine in the central comic roles-in fact, Dreyfuss even took home the Oscar that year. The adorable Quinn Cummings more than holds her own as Mason’s wisecracking daughter. Funny and touching, “Goodbye” is an ideal feel good movie. Appropriate for older kids.


    Norma Rae (1979)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After hearing union organizer Reuben (Ron Leibman) deliver a speech at the textile mill where she works, Norma Rae (Sally Field) joins the effort to organize workers. Butting heads with management, and alienating husband Sonny (Bridges) with her new activism, Norma Rae perseveres and becomes a confident, courageous fighter.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The diminutive but plucky Field, who got her start playing Gidget on television, achieved breakout movie stardom with her assured, Oscar-winning performance as Norma Rae, who evolves from pliant employee to impassioned agitator for workers’ rights. The interplay between Norma Rae and unlikely ally Reuben (Leibman) is interesting to watch, but ultimately it’s the emergence of Norma Rae’s righteous fire that’s most memorable, reminding us that in this country, fighting for the fair treatment of working people is both a right and necessity.


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  • February 15, 2010

    Weaver’s Winners

    by John Farr

    A look at three of Sigourney Weaver’s winning performances.


    Alien (1979)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    First of a long series, Scott’s film succeeds best at mixing genuine chills with a semblance of character development and solid ensemble playing. We first get acquainted with the diverse team manning spaceship “Nostromo”, before all hell breaks loose. It seems a nasty alien creature has been ingested inside one of the crew, and when it gets out, the group is trapped in their vessel like the proverbial sardines in a can.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Trim little classic has a skin-crawling immediacy, as director Scott builds a sense of impending danger, followed by moments of heightened suspense and terror once this nightmarish genie escapes from its bottle. Weaver makes a perfect feminist hero, ably supported by Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Ian Holm. Sci-fi that favors mood and substance over dazzle.


    The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In 1965, Australian reporter Guy Hamilton arrives in Indonesia to track the turbulent Sukarno regime. There he meets half-Chinese news photographer Billy Kwan (Hunt), who quickly gets him acclimated to the people, place and politics. Billy then introduces Guy to Jill (Weaver), a British embassy attaché, and romantic sparks fly. But Guy is there to uncover the next big story, and a country on the brink of revolution is no place to fall in love.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Weir’s romantic thriller is a tense, colorful ride. The director heightens our awareness of impending societal disruption, keeping us continually on edge. Gibson has never been more magnetic as Guy, and the captivating Weaver exudes sensuality and mystery. Yet actress Hunt is the revelation in the gender-bending role of Billy — it won her an Oscar.


    The Ice Storm (1997)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Set in 1973, this pungent, disturbing tale of suburban malaise concerns the emotionally frigid relations between two families in the affluent town of New Canaan, Connecticut. Returning from his Manhattan prep school for Thanksgiving, 16-year-old Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is greeted at the train station by his remote father, Ben (Kevin Kline), and unsmiling mother, Elena (Joan Allen), as well as his Watergate-obsessed younger sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci). Unbeknownst to Elena, Ben is carrying on a torrid affair with neighbor Janey Carver (Weaver), while Janey’s spacey son Mikey (Elijah Wood) has been targeted for sexual experimentation by Wendy. Paul’s got issues of his own, too, including a crush on a priggish socialite (Katie Holmes). Unhappiness and alienation seems to be everyone’s lot, at least until the weather breaks…

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on Rick Moody’s novel, this perceptive adaptation by Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) and screenwriter James Schamus effectively recaptures the bad hangover of the sixties drug-and-sex revolution, most emblematically at a discomfiting spouse-swapping “key party” that ends rather bitterly. Veterans Kline, Allen and Weaver are all first rate, but the young Maguire, Ricci, and Wood also hold their own, touching your heart with a coming-of-age awkwardness that sadly reflects their parents’ own disillusionment and inner gloom.


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  • February 15, 2010

    Difficult Women

    by John Farr

    Bette Davis. Ann Blyth. Mary Tyler Moore. Three masterful portrayals of nasty women.


    The Little Foxes (1941)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Married to husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) for his money, Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) and her leech-like brothers steal from him to invest in a cotton mill while the poor man recuperates from heart problems. When Horace returns and discovers the theft, Regina must cover her tracks, and inevitably becomes the victim of her own consuming greed.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from Lillian Hellman’s Broadway smash, the third and final collaboration between William Wyler and leading lady Bette Davis, again playing a viper in petticoats, is a poisonous, effective drama set in the turn-of-the-century South. Davis was never so wicked, playing Regina to the icy hilt. A fabulous cast and authentic 1900s detail bring Hellman’s loathsome characters to vivid life. Is this what they mean by Southern hospitality?


    Mildred Pierce (1945)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This timeless, tawdry Joan Crawford melodrama is based on the James Cain story of a ruthless career woman (Joan Crawford), who will do anything to ensure her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) gets all the advantages she never enjoyed. Veda grows into a spoiled monster, but the other characters surrounding the hard-working Mildred aren’t too sympathetic either, whether it’s the oily Monty Berrigan (Zachary Scott) whom Mildred thinks she loves, or lascivious realtor Wally Fay (Jack Carson), who just might help Mildred if she becomes friendlier. There’s a foul odor in this town, and it may be the scent of murder.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Here Curtiz the master creates a diabolical murder yarn. Crawford resuscitated her fading career with the driven Mildred, a part she was born to play. The Oscar- nominated Blyth grates as the hateful Veda (hard for her not to), and Scott and Carson each ooze their particular brand of acid as the calculating men in Mildred’s life. For a vicarious glimpse into seamy small town intrigue, you can’t beat this one. Joan won an Oscar.


    Ordinary People (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Adolescent-aged son Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) must painfully rebuild his life and relationships, particularly that with his parents (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore), after his beloved older brother dies in a boating accident.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “People” is one of the more harrowing films out there (without blood or violence) thanks to Redford’s inspired direction and flawless turns by Sutherland, Moore and especially Hutton. Penetrating and painful to watch, the film delivers ample emotional rewards. Redford’s first foray behind the camera, the film won the Oscars for Best Picture and Director, as did young Hutton for Supporting Actor. A must.


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  • February 8, 2010

    Valentines Viewing

    by John Farr

    Be John’s Valentine and revisit his great date picks.


    The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) uses her wily sales technique to impress Hugo (Frank Morgan), a Budapest gift-store owner, she is hired to work alongside clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), but the two don’t hit it off. No matter: Alfred is secretly hoping to meet a woman with whom he’s had a promising written correspondence via the personals. Klara, meanwhile, begins to fall for an anonymous man she’s been writing to as well. So it’s a big surprise-to them, not us-when they discover the true identities of their respective pen-pals.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    They don’t make romantic comedies like they used to, and no one made them quite like director Ernst Lubitsch, whose famed “touch” lights this wry, poignant, perennially charming film. Veteran players Stewart and Sullavan are a perfect match as comically antagonistic lonelyhearts, conveying their characters’ vulnerabilities with a delicacy too often missing from the tepid Hanks-Ryan remake, “You’ve Got Mail”. Rich subplots involving the wonderful Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut, who plays a scheming, boastful employee, let Lubitsch impart further nuance to this modest but wholly pleasing tale. A delight from start to finish, this is one “Shop” you’ll want to dally in.


    Harold and Maude (1971)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A comedy about the unlikeliest of May-December romances: Harold (Bud Cort) is a bright, eccentric nineteen year old fixated on death, Maude a 79 year old free spirit whose singular obsession remains the wonder of life and living. This movie traces how these two unlikely characters connect and form a loving relationship.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A warm and quirky comic gem that’s built a sizable cult following over the years. Director Hal Ashby’s second feature boasts inspired casting, with veteran stage actress Ruth Gordon irresistible as Maude and Bud Cort so ideal for Harold that the young actor was forever typecast as a weirdo, as mentor Robert Altman had sagely predicted. Fabulous soundtrack from Cat Stevens.


    Pulp Fiction (1994)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ground-breaking film tracks various Los Angeles lowlifes-including two hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson)-whose fates are entwined with fading boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), underworld boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames), and his wife Mia (Uma Thurman), a gorgeous moll with a nose for trouble.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A genre-twisting, savagely funny tour de force, with vignettes of bantering hit-men, crooked boxers, petty thieves, and an alluring gangster’s wife, all cutting back and forth in time. With its exhilarating, entertaining stew of pop-culture references courtesy of director/screenwriter Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary, “Pulp” earns its status as one of the most influential films of the ’90s. For those able to tolerate its blend of pitch-black comedy and brutal violence (it’s not for everyone), it’s a must-see film. Famous as John Travolta’s comeback vehicle.


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  • February 8, 2010

    Frears’s Films

    by John Farr

    Two sleepers and a hit from British director Stephen Frears.


    My Beautiful Laundrette (1986)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is a young Pakistani Londoner who gets a shot at living the capitalist dream when his mob-connected Uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) asks him to manage a ramshackle laundromat-and turn a profit. Soon after taking over, Omar runs into old school chum Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), now a working-class thug affiliated with the fascist National Front. Omar hires him despite his odious ideology, and the two become partners, and lovers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Originally made for the BBC, and scripted by half-Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi, Frears’s endearing, intelligent “Laundrette” is a dramatic and often humorous study of bigotry, sexuality, and social mobility in Thatcher-era Britain. Warnecke and Day-Lewis are convincing as distinct social types in eighties London-the striving immigrant under pressure to acculturate on one hand and marry a family acquaintance on the other; and the skinhead who turns on his mates to pursue a friendship with a loathsome “Paki.” Coaxing fine support from his multiracial cast, Frears handles it all with tenderness, insight, and unpredictable tonal shifts.


    The Snapper (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When unmarried 20-year-old Irish gal Sharon (Tina Kellegher) informs her parents that she’s pregnant, and even refuses to name the irresponsible seed man, the unexpected happens: The large, closely knit family takes it all in stride and tries to be supportive, especially her proud, big-hearted father Dessie (Colm Meaney). But when the neighborhood gossips start wagging their tongues, it all gets too personal for Dessie, and Sharon begins to wonder if moving out isn’t the best thing for everyone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Written by Roddy Doyle (“The Commitments”), who adapted the script from his own Tarrytown novel, Frears’s “Snapper” lets us cozy up with an eccentric bunch. Like any big family, the Curleys are constantly bickering at each other, but Frears quickly establishes just how tight everyone is, too—especially Dessie and Sharon, who talk turkey while sharing pints at the pub. “Snapper” zeroes in on the special nature of this father-daughter relationship, with Meaney in excellent form as a kindly, slightly overprotective dad, and Kellegher equally good at uproarious girl chatter, deep mortification, and even late-night anxiety. A lovely and bittersweet slice of Irish life.


    The Queen (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In 1997, after the tragic death of Princess Diana, emotionally reserved Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the Windsor family struggle with growing pressure from newly elected PM Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and a grief-stricken public to offer some official display of mourning.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Frears’s wry, compelling docu-drama follows Blair’s strenuous efforts to help the hapless Windsors avert a major PR disaster in the wake of Diana’s fatal car accident. Oscar winner Mirren, whose uncanny channeling of Elizabeth’s stiff-upper-lip airs is one of recent cinema’s grandest performances, flawlessly captures the Queen’s eerie old-world reticence. But she also makes her a sympathetic, even intriguing figure. By turns tense and touching, and consistently engrossing, by all means bow down to “The Queen”.


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