REEL 13
Best Movies by Farr
  • February 1, 2010

    Freeman’s Finest

    by John Farr

    A look at Morgan Freeman’s most memorable movies.


    Glory (1985)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    True story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), son of Massachusetts abolitionists, who’s appointed to lead the first black regiment for the Union in the Civil War. Before this group is able to prove their mettle in battle, Shaw must fight injustice within the Union hierarchy, as superior officers doubt the regiment’s ability to fight and seem unwilling (at first) to even equip them properly. Ultimately, Shaw’s faith in his men is borne out heroically.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Edward Zwick’s vivid Civil War epic boasts terrific battle sequences, but aside from the story’s inherent fascination, what sets this movie apart are the incredible performances glimpsed in between the gunfire. Broderick brings to Shaw a nuanced mix of determination and vulnerability, but Denzel Washington virtually steals the picture as a defiant enlisted man. (He won an Oscar for this.) Morgan Freeman also shines as a wise, seasoned regimental sergeant. Both great entertainment and history lesson.


    Unforgiven (1992)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A nasty customer in the western town of Big Whisky cuts up a prostitute. Unsatisfied with the local sheriff’s progress in the case, her colleagues offer a bounty for the culprit. Learning this, retired gunslinger Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) picks up his weapon once again, and old colleague Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) goes along for the ride.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The craggy, mellowing Eastwood directs himself admirably in this first-class oater. It’s scenic, true to the period and includes excellent support from Freeman, Hackman and the late Richard Harris in a particularly showy role. With the dark and atmospheric “Unforgiven,” Eastwood carries on the western film tradition in winning style.


    The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, former banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) keeps to himself at Shawshank Penitentiary, but that doesn’t always help protect him from the molestations of other inmates. Andy befriends fellow lifer Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), a man who knows how to procure forbidden items, and even begins to manage the warden’s finances in exchange for certain privileges. But as the years pass, Red discovers that Andy has something else on his mind besides comfort behind bars.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from a Stephen King story, Darabont’s “Redemption” reinvigorates the prison-drama genre with a robust, deeply touching story about courage, friendship, and the persistence of hope amid the regimentation of life in the Big House. Robbins gives a masterful performance as the aloof, enigmatic inmate whom everyone-including the bulls-comes to respect. And Freeman brings his own Southern gentility to the role of Red, the wizened con whose bond with Andy takes him to a very unexpected place: the outside world.


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  • February 1, 2010

    Train Wrecks

    by John Farr

    No, John’s not recommending terrible films; these films all feature horrific train wrecks.


    The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a spit-and-polish British officer, endures a humiliating confinement in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, and is forced to lead the building of a bridge for the movement of Japanese materiel, a task which slowly begins to consume him, blurring his sense of allegiance. All the while we watch the relationship between him and the formal but civilized camp commandant (Sessue Hayakawa) evolve from outright hostility to something close to mutual respect. Ultimately, an American officer (William Holden) who knew Nicholson in the camp but has since escaped, is assigned to return and blow up the bridge.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a true story, this riveting war film, shot in Sri Lanka, represented a new career peak for director David Lean, who’d go on to shoot the monumental “Lawrence Of Arabia”. Top-notch acting (Guinness won an Oscar after initially turning down the role), authentic atmosphere and a brilliant script add up to grand adventure and powerful human drama. The whole ensemble cast is superb, notably Holden, Hayakawa, and the late, great Jack Hawkins.


    The Train (1964)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Cold-blooded Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) wants to remove a a cache of priceless art from France by train in the waning days of the Nazi occupation. With the help of some gallant friends in the Resistance, railroad worker Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster) takes on the dangerous task of derailing this mission.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    John Frankenheimer’s pulse-pounding war film is lean and riveting, as Lancaster’s character works intrepidly to foil Von Waldheim’s exacting plans. Lancaster is restrained and no-nonsense as Labiche- thankfully he doesn’t even attempt a French accent, while Scofield is icy perfection as the ruthless Von Waldheim. This is one of my personal favorites from the sixties and ranks among the talented Frankenheimer’s best work.


    The Fugitive (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the 60′s TV series involves Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), a prominent Chicago doctor accused of murdering his wife. The jury doesn’t buy Kimble’s story about confronting a one-armed man in his apartment the night his wife was killed, and he is convicted. When Kimble escapes custody, he hunts the real culprit, and ace U.S Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) gets assigned to track him down. Will Gerard get to Kimble before the doctor can clear himself?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A textbook example of a first-rate thriller, buoyed by Davis’s breathless pacing and a picture-stealing performance from Jones, who won an Oscar. Drawing from his Indiana Jones days, Ford is just right as the besieged hero always one step ahead of disaster, but Jones’s Gerard, whose drive is offset by a wry, folksy humor, is intensely charismatic as the intrepid hound-dog on Kimble’s trail. Over ten years after its initial release, it’s worth another peek if you haven’t seen it since. First-timers should definitely plunge.


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  • January 26, 2010

    On the Road

    by John Farr

    There are tons of road trip films out there; here are three you might have missed.


    Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful director of Hollywood fluff who decides he wants to make a serious picture about “real world” suffering. Disguising himself as a tramp, the earnest but naive Sullivan hits the road with a ridiculous entourage provided by his cynical studio bosses. Eventually, he meets a down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake) and learns the hard way how poverty dampens, but doesn’t extinguish, the human spirit.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Widely considered the greatest of Sturges’s classic 1940s films, “Sullivan’s Travels” is a stunning hybrid, blending giddy slapstick and razor-sharp humor with grim, unblinking social realism. McCrea and Lake make a fun pair, comically and romantically, while Robert Greig is a hoot as Sullivan’s droll butler. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Sturges concocting this incisively scripted, beautifully directed Hollywood satire, which ultimately has a lot to say about the restorative power of laughter.


    Midnight Run (1988)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Modern-day bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert DeNiro) has a colorful career, but nothing could prepare him for Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a mob accountant on the lam. It seems Jonathan embezzled a bundle from his crooked bosses, gave the money to charity, then managed to jump bail. Jack first embarasses the authorities by succeeding where they’ve failed: he nabs Jonathan. Now he’ll be amply compensated if he can get Jonathan from the east to the west coast in one piece. But given the long list of neuroses afflicting Jonathan, and with both the FBI and the mafia interested in meeting the sensitive money-man en-route, Jack will have to earn every penny.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “Run” achieves ideal balance between comedy and action, creating pure, adrenalized entertainment. DeNiro and Grodin project surprisingly strong chemistry as polar opposites thrown together by fate. Their inspired interaction elevates the movie well above the standard “buddy” picture. Joe Pantoliano stands out as Jack’s nervous boss. Fast moving, cross-country fun.


    Transamerica (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Just a week before pre-operative transsexual Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman), formerly Stanley, is about go under the knife to complete her male-to-female transformation, she learns that she has a 17-year-old son named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who’s in trouble with the law. Encouraged by her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), to come to grips with her past, Bree bails Toby out of jail and takes him on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Expertly handled by first-time director Tucker, this funny, touching film belongs to a tradition of beautifully observed movies about nontraditional American families. Huffman is riveting to watch, especially in the scenes with her disapproving mother, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan). But it is her rapport with Zegers, perfect as the troubled, miserable Toby, that gives the film its heart and soul, especially as he believes Bree is a goody-goody church type-not his father. Their trip-so often the arc of growth in great road films-is mutually nourishing and eye-opening. Settle in with Transamerica for a frank, heartfelt outing.


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  • January 26, 2010

    Physical Transformations

    by John Farr

    Films with characters that require their actors to undergo eye-popping physical transformations.


    Little Big Man (1970)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Arthur Penn’s incomparable western epic details the (fictional) reminiscences of Jack Crabb, the last remaining survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. The expansive story sounds more like the lives of ten men, as Jack gets adopted by Cheyenne Indians, then assimilates to white, and finally goes back and forth between the two races, while encountering Western characters Wild Bill Hickok and of course, General Custer himself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Part comedy, part stinging commentary on our treatment of the Indians, “Man” is a dazzling accomplishment, a vivid tapestry of all the opposing qualities that made the old west the basis of so many great movies. In a virtuoso turn, Hoffman plays Crabb from teenager to 121-year-old man, and early on, even gets a bath from a sexually repressed Christian lady (Faye Dunaway).


    Raging Bull (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In 1941, real-life boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) spurns the mob, who want a piece of him, in his quest for the middleweight title. With the help of Joey (Joe Pesci), his brother and manager, Jake wins the championship belt, then loses it to Sugar Ray Robinson. As his career spirals downward, Jake bloats up and physically abuses Joey and his own teenage wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty). Alienated from everyone and wrestling with emotional demons, the relentlessly self-destructive Jake searches for some semblance of inner peace.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on LaMotta’s memoirs and filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, Martin Scorsese’s gritty, no-holds-barred drama-possibly his greatest-tackles the familiar theme of redemption with blunt force. Oscar winner De Niro, who famously packed on 50 pounds to do the “fat” scenes, is riveting as the brutish Jake, whose primary talent lies in the amount of punishment he can take in the ring. The fight sequences-raw, sweaty, and savage-are bravura pieces of filmmaking. “Raging Bull” may be hard for some viewers to sit through, but Scorsese ultimately leads his protagonist, and us, to a state of grace.


    The Machinist (2004)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Haunted by nightmarish visions of the past, grossly emaciated machine-shop worker Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) has not slept in a year. And despite his friendships with chipper airport café waitress Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), and kindly hooker Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Trevor is slowly losing his grip on sanity. Menacing stick-figure drawings begin appearing in his apartment, and then Trevor meets a mysterious co-worker whose appearance presages a deadly accident. But is this person real or imagined?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Anderson’s eerie psychological thriller is an intelligent study of guilt and repression featuring a disturbing lead performance by Bale. Talk about dedication: the actor dropped a shocking 63 pounds to immerse himself in the role of Reznik, a “living skeleton.” It is hard to see the hulking star of “American Psycho” so gaunt and sickeningly starved, but it serves the character’s sympathetic, soul-annihilating psychosis. Leigh and Sanchez-Gijon provide excellent support, as does Mr. Clean look-alike John Sharian, playing a demonic, scarily deformed factory worker who may or may not be a phantasm. Filmed in metallic blues and grays for added effect, “The Machinist” is a paranoid, memorably creepy puzzler.


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  • January 20, 2010

    Break-Up Movies

    by John Farr

    Three lesser-known movies about spoiled romance.


    An Unmarried Woman (1978)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Living comfortably on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her daughter and lawyer husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh) seems to have it all. So she’s devastated when Martin announces he’s leaving her for a younger woman. Suddenly forced to adjust to life as a single mom, with all the freedom and hardships that independence entails, Erica must learn how to be self-sufficient-and how to love – all over again.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Driven by a compelling performance from lead actress Jill Clayburgh, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Paul Mazursky’s sensitive drama is an iconic blend of the so-called woman’s film and a plucky portrait of contemporary femininity. After a shattering split-up lands her in the open market, Erica’s affair with a soulful painter, touchingly played by a scruffy Alan Bates, teaches her how to invest emotionally in another person without submerging her own identity. “Woman” offers a warm, perceptive, comic look at feminine self-reliance that still resonates. A spiritual precursor to “Sex and the City.”


    White (1994)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After his beautiful wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) leaves him after six months due to post-wedding impotency, Polish hairdresser Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) returns to his native country– not without difficulty, of course–in the suitcase of a friend. Once there, he hatches a crazed plan to make big money and lure back his disillusioned bride. Or is it revenge hes after?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The second film in Polish expatriate Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy (comprising “Red,” “White,” and “Blue,” after the French flag) takes a cheeky look at post-communist Eastern Europe through the eyes of a scheming striver. The bitingly clever premise is brought to life by Delpy’s seductive Dominique and Kieslowski regular Zamachowski, who portrays the penniless Karol with equal bits of raffish charm and Chaplin-esque awkwardness. Say oui to “White.”


    Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Seeking escape from heartache after he’s dumped by his hot TV-star girlfriend, Sarah (Kristin Bell), struggling musician Peter (Jason Segel) decides to enjoy a much-needed vacation on the tropical beaches of Oahu. But relief is nowhere in sight when Sarah and her new British-rocker beau Aldous (Russell Brand) turn up at the same resort.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The basic premise of this hilarious relationship comedy might be old hat, but in the hands of producer Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”) and writer-star Segel, the well-earned belly laughs are tempered with a poignant touch. How many movies can you think of where the couple’s break-up happens in the nude? Segel, Bell, Brand, and the rest of the cast are superb, as is Mila Kunis, the flirty resort employee who just might make “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” a possibility for the heartsick Peter. Finally, a spry comedy that hinges on painful truths about love and sex (lots of it) we can all relate to.


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  • January 20, 2010

    Edmund Goulding

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three unforgettable movies directed by Edmund Goulding.


    Grand Hotel (1932)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Stars Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and John and Lionel Barrymore play out several interwoven stories, mixing drama, romance and murder, all occurring among the various guests at Berlin’s posh Grand Hotel.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    MGM – the most prestigious studio from Hollywood’s golden age – paints on the gloss for this first class ensemble production. Garbo and John Barrymore stand out as the doomed lovers, as does his brother, Lionel, who plays a timid and terminally ill clerk on his last spree. Grand Hotel was among the first MGM sound dramas to showcase two things: first, the studios’ unmatched ability to adapt serious literary material to motion pictures; and second, to attract and retain star talent. The movie still dazzles nearly seventy-five years after its release.


    The Dawn Patrol (1938)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    At the French headquarters of the British Royal Flying Corps, squadron commander Major Brand (Rathbone) is berated by WWI flying ace Capt. Courtney (Errol Flynn) for sending young, inexperienced pilots to their deaths over enemy lines in rickety planes. But after Courtney is reassigned to Brands position, he begins to realize the brutal, agonizing realities of deciding who will fly those dailyand almost always deadlyearly-morning missions.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A scene-for-scene remake of Howard Hawks’s 1930 film of the same name, “Patrol” is an anguished World War I flier drama starring the dashing, seemingly unflappable Flynn, who inhabits his role with heroic gusto. Goulding wrenches great emotion out of the massacre-of-innocents scenario, dropping in on the doomed men as they quaff scotch and listen to the melancholy sound of the airmen’s gramophone before hopping into their jerry-built “crates.” Rathbone is excellent as the tortured desk commander accused of the gravest cynicism, and real-life Flynn bosom buddy David Niven supplies an additional punch as Courtney’s best man, Lt. Scott. See “Dawn Patrol,” a high-flying combat adventure with a conscience.


    Nightmare Alley (1947)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Stanton Carlisle is a carnival employee who over-reaches in his quest for fame and fortune. He picks up a mind-reading technique (which boils down to a bunch of sophisticated code) from trusting colleague Zeena (Blondell), then discards her for a younger woman and appropriates the code for himself. Now hitting the big-time in night-clubs, Stanton feels he can’t lose, but the higher he gets, the farther he’s bound to fall.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Edmund Goulding creates one of the screen’s most indelible noirs, with the seamy carnival world providing an ideal setting. Power excels against type as the sleazy Stanton (a role he loved playing), and Blondell brings the perfect cheap, faded quality to small-timer Zeena. Jules Furthman’s hard-boiled script keeps us guessing just how Stanton will eventually tumble. Dripping with a deliciously dark mood and atmosphere, mystery fans will find “Nightmare” right up their alleys.


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  • January 12, 2010

    Based in the Big Easy

    by John Farr

    Three essential films set in New Orleans.


    A Street Car Named Desire (1951)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Frayed Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in a seedy quarter of New Orleans, where she’s arranged to stay with her pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and coarse, hulking brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Right from the start, Blanche and Stanley are at odds, as he sees through her high-mannered facade to the neurotic, vulnerable woman beneath. Tensions soon escalate, as Stanley sets out to confront Blanche about money and her unseemly past.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Brando’s force-of-nature performance in Kazan’s “Streetcar” – an electrifying mix of brute physicality and smoldering sexuality – made Stanley Kowalski’s infamous bellow a permanent part of pop culture and Brando a household name. But the undeniable strength of this film, adapted from the smash Broadway play by Tennessee Williams, is driven as much by the witty, vivid dialogue and ensemble acting as it is the lead actor’s Method work. Leigh, Hunter, Karl Malden, Ruby Bond, and Nick Dennis are all terrific, and Alex North’s atmospheric jazz score enhances the tense, combustible interplay. Winner of five Oscars, this “Streetcar” offers an incredible ride.


    Dead Man Walking (1995)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a Catholic nun and anti-death-penalty activist, receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), soon to be executed for the rape and murder of two teenage girls, she resolves to pay him a visit. Though Matthew is far from sympathetic, Sister Helen agrees to be his spiritual advisor and advocate, and lobbies for a new hearing on Matthew’s sentence.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s non-fiction book by actor/director Tim Robbins, “Dead Man Walking” is an intense, harrowing account of one woman’s dogged attempt to assure spiritual (if not earthly) redemption for a condemned killer. Penn is ideally cast as the convict, but Susan Sarandon’s stripped-down performance as his spiritual guide is courageous, gut-wrenching work, fully meriting that year’s Oscar. Unavoidably depressing, “Dead Man Walking” is also very real, shedding light into spaces we could easily ignore, but shouldn’t.


    When the Levees Broke (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    One year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, director Spike Lee returned to make this definitive account of the tragedy and its aftermath, as well as the egregious failures of government officials who were slow to respond to the catastrophe. Told in the words of those who lived through the calamity, this film offers a devastating look at the ravaging of Crescent City by a monster storm, and the shocking indifference that caused impoverished, mostly African-American residents of the Ninth Ward to suffer the greatest indignities.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Originally aired on HBO, Lee’s marathon “Requiem in Four Acts” covers in grim, engrossing detail the storm, the surge over the levees and resultant flood, the looting, the mass flight to the Superdome, the interminable waiting for help, FEMA’s slow, infuriatingly feeble response, and finally the efforts underway to rebuild this historic city. It is very much an emotional portrait, not a dry recitation of facts, and to that end the film is built around punchy interviews with survivors, local politicians, and celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Wynton Marsalis, Douglas Brinkley, and others with a deep connection to New Orleans. With its lyrical imagery and bluesy vibe, “Levees” is a film to contemplate, both for its
    justifiable outrage and its profound sense of lament.


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  • January 12, 2010

    Southern Fried Films

    by John Farr

    John Farr ventures south for three of the finest films about the region.


    Inherit the Wind (1960)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this courtroom drama based on the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and fundamentalist prosecutor Matthew Brady (March) face off when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York), is put in jail for teaching evolution in tiny Hillsboro, Tennessee, with the arrest instigated by his girlfriend’s disapproving father, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Kramer’s spellbinding film features a deft performance by Tracy as the rumpled, deceptively plain-spoken Drummond (modeled on Clarence Darrow), matched by March’s larger than life, virtuoso turn as Matthew Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan). Just sit back, pretend you’re sitting in that humid courtroom, and watch two old pros at work. You’ll re-live history. Also look for Gene Kelly in one of his only serious, non-dancing roles as a cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken.


    In the Heat of the Night (1967)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Black San Francisco police Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) ends up in wrong place at wrong time – the Deep South, where a murder has just been committed. Set up against a bigoted, wily sheriff (Rod Steiger), Tibbs must unravel the mystery and clear himself, watching his back in hostile territory.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Intense action drama boasts a tight script and a pair of explosive lead performances by Poitier and Steiger. “Heat” netted Oscars in most top categories that year – Picture, Actor (Steiger), Screenplay and Editing. And though Steiger won the award, it’s just as much Poitier’s movie. Director Jewison makes palpable the racial ignorance and poverty long ingrained in the Deep South.


    Mississippi Burning (1988)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Alan Parker’s film recreates the true story of three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and takes some dramatic license in doing so. Agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) arrive down South to investigate the disappearance of the three men (two white, one black), and their warm welcome comes in the form of a burning KKK cross. Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Gailard Sartain and Michael Rooker make up this unsavory welcome party, and Frances McDormand is Dourif’s neglected wife. The FBI team must break through a small town’s wall of silence to solve the mystery, while trying to control violent retribution against the local black population.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Though detractors claim the movie inaccurately depicts a white FBI coming in to rescue helpless blacks, I disagree: the film features some extremely courageous black characters, and at the outset, the FBI seems more muddled than heroic. Regardless of debates on historical accuracy, the movie is breathlessly exciting and extremely well-played. Though McDormand was Oscar-nominated for the small but pivotal role of Mrs. Pell, the movie is Hackman’s, as he turns in his most explosive performance since “The French Connection”(and he also got an Oscar nod).


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  • January 4, 2010

    War & Espionage Essentials

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s declassified dossier of essential war & espionage films.


    The Guns of Navarone (1961)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Crack Allied team commanded by Peck is recruited for a top-secret, near-suicide mission: penetrate a remote fortress on a Nazi-held island and blow up the two enormous long-range guns which prevent the rescue of two thousand British soldiers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Epic-scale adventure based on Alistair MacLean’s book. The movie boasts terrific action sequences, but is also an engrossing ensemble drama thanks to a sterling screenplay from producer Carl Foreman and terrific turns from a top international cast, including Niven, Quinn, and Quayle.


    The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Collared for importing oil from the Nazi regime, Swedish petrol dealer Erik Erickson (William Holden) is told by British intelligence officer Collins (Hugh Griffith) that his name will be cleared-but only if he engages in a bit of espionage for the Allies. Erickson reluctantly agrees, and is soon branded a traitor for his bogus pro-Nazi business dealings. Secretly, however, Erickson has entered Germany not to build a refinery, but to locate sensitive military information.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on the true story of a blackmailed oil dealer born on American soil, Seaton’s riveting wartime thriller features a knockout performance by Holden, whose burly frame and husky voice is a perfect fit for the role. The radiant Lilli Palmer holds her own as Marianne Mollendorf, the Prussian socialite who assists in providing crucial target information to the Allied forces, as well as offering amorous comfort to Erickson, whose own wife has left him. For a finely crafted, nerve-jarring tale of real-world subterfuge, don’t let “The Counterfeit Traitor” out of sight.


    Where Eagles Dare (1968)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Crack Allied team during World War II is assigned to penetrate a remote Nazi alpine fortress to free a captured General. This intricate mission is headed by British Major Jonathan Smith (Richard Burton), supported by steely American Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). Though the plan is inspired, there are factors unknown to the team which will alter the course of events, forcing some improvisation.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Master of adventure Alistair MacLean adapts his own novel to the screen with impressive results. The film is epic in scale and length, yet there are no lulls. Colorful and tense, “Eagles” will engage you straight through to its breathtaking conclusion. A huge box-office success, this helped solidify Eastwood’s position as a bankable star.


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  • December 21, 2009

    Other Pictures in Paris

    by John Farr

    John Farr travels to Paris in search of fine films.


    Ninotchka (1939)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Greta Garbo’s first comedy, “Ninotchka” details what can happen-on a purely human, emotional level-when communism and capitalism collide. Three Russian comrades travel to Paris to sell an invaluable necklace with proceeds to benefit the party. The necklace’s rightful owner, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) prevails on Count Leon D’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to restore the necklace to her. The Count blocks the sale and distracts the three Russians with all the capitalistic excesses Paris has to offer. When Moscow notes the delay, they send tough emissary Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to move things along. When the cold but impossibly beautiful agent arrives in Paris and meets the Count, he realizes his mission has become much more challenging, but more interesting as well.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “Garbo Laughs!” screamed the publicity, and so will you (laugh, not scream). Director Ernst Lubitsch infuses this gossamer “East meets West” romance with his trademark chic style and clever sophistication. Garbo’s transformation from icy harridan to warm, alluring female is a wonder to behold, and Douglas is understated and suitably wry as the Count, never stepping in Garbo’s light too much. With a peerless script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, this is the movie equivalent to champagne, and, of course, caviar. (Trivia note: this picture was remade as a musical for Fred Astaire: 1957′s “Silk Stockings”.


    Last Tango in Paris (1972)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    While apartment-hunting in Paris, sultry 20-year-old Jeanne (Maria Schneider) meets Paul (Marlon Brando), a brooding middle-aged American whose wife has recently committed suicide for reasons he cannot fathom. Within minutes, they make love in the empty flat, a desolate place that becomes their temple of carnality, but with strict rules established by Paul.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scandalous in 1972 and still unsettling today, Bernardo Bertolucci’s bizarre, fascinating psychodrama depicts sex not as a union of two human beings, but as a reflection of their alienation from each other. While the butter scene is justly famous, this isn’t the only reason “Tango” stays with you. Just watch Brando closely here: at certain moments you catch a glimpse of that fiery young man in the ripped tee-shirt, railing against the world’s injustices, down but never out, and utterly, brilliantly alive. (Trivia note: reportedly, to build a feeling of spontaneity, Brando would improvise his own lines the day before shooting a scene. In many instances, Paul’s memories of childhood are Brando’s.)


    Ronin (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sam (Robert De Niro), a veteran intelligence agent, joins a covert team for a lucrative assignment to seize a suitcase whose mysterious contents are coveted by both the Russian mafia and the IRA. This simple premise develops into countless twists and turns, double- and triple-crosses, along with some car chase sequences worthy of “Bullitt” and “The French Connection”.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Late director John Frankenheimer takes a boilerplate idea and milks it for all its worth, creating a tight, pounding thriller. Casting and performances are solid, but this truly is a director’s picture, with Frankenheimer’s keen sense of pacing and flavorful European locations contributing to an edge-of-your-seat experience.


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  • December 21, 2009

    Holly & Billy Bob’s Oscar Nods

    by John Farr

    John Farr pays tribute to the unlikely Academy successes of Holly Hunter and Billy Bob Thornton.


    The Piano (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), mute since childhood, travels with young, precocious daughter Flora (Paquin) to a remote part of New Zealand to wed icy farmer Stewart (Sam Neill). A ferociously talented pianist, Ada soon agrees to give music lessons to George Baines (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman living among Maoris, in exchange for his housing the piano her husband would not let her keep, and a strange, erotic passion slowly begins to consume them.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Set in the 19th century, Jane Campion’s brilliant period tale “The Piano” was rightly lauded in 1993 for its eccentric storyline and otherworldly, dreamlike atmosphere. Despite never uttering a word, Oscar winner Hunter exudes intelligence and determination as the rebellious Ada, along with a repressed yet combustible sensuality. Anna Paquin is a marvel in her debut, exemplifying the mix of spunk and knowingness that made her a sought-after young star. Visually ravishing and exquisite, “The Piano” is Campion’s visually poetic ode to our unspoken emotions.


    Sling Blade (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Released from an Alabama psychiatric institution 25 years after he murdered his mother and her lover, 37-year-old Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) takes a job as a fix-it man in his old hometown. Despite his violent past, the mildly retarded Childers is a gentle soul who befriends a needy young boy, Frank (Lucas Black), and his widowed mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), who offers to take him in. But Karl’s delicate re-entry into society is disturbed by Linda’s no-good boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), a cruel, abusive drunk who treats him with utter contempt.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Alternately haunting and sweetly affecting, “Sling Blade” is a beautifully accomplished debut by actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, who conceived, wrote, directed and starred in this absorbing drama. (He won an Oscar for his original screenplay.) Thornton’s cathartic, humane portrayal of Childers–a mild-mannered simpleton who quietly protects and cares for Frank and his mom but is haunted by the past–stirs our deepest sympathies. In a nuanced turn, the late John Ritter excels as Linda’s gay friend Vaughan, but the real surprise is country singer Yoakam, whose hateful, hard-drinking Doyle guides the film’s tragic final act.


    A Simple Plan (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After stumbling across the wreckage of a small plane in the woods containing a dead pilot and millions in cash, sensible accountant Hank (Bill Paxton) orders his dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and their dissolute pal Lou (Brent Briscoe) to keep the money hidden for a year so as to curb the suspicion of drug dealers who’ll no doubt come looking for their loot. But simple plans, like decent people, have a funny way of going very, very wrong.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    What would you do if you found $4 million, with no one around to claim it? That’s the basic premise of this absorbing Midwestern crime thriller by “Spiderman” director Raimi. “Plan” is as much a study in the poisonous effects of greed as it is a dark-comic twist on the get-rich-quick genre, and Raimi prises splendid acting from his talented cast, especially Thornton (few play the backwoods idiot as well as he) and Fonda, who as Hank’s wife turns from an innocuous, slightly nervous third party into a cold-blooded deviant at the promise of so much lucre. Neo-noir at its best.


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  • December 14, 2009

    (Early) Worthy Wyler

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three films from legend William Wyler’s early oeuvre.


    Counsellor at Law (1933)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Perched high atop New York in his law office, attorney George Simon (John Barrymore) runs a busy, lucrative practice handling or rather, manhandling – a dizzying array of high-profile cases. GS, as he is known to his staff, may run with (and occasionally bilk) the rich and powerful, but he also remembers his roots as an immigrant toiling on the streets of Greenwich Village, something his status-conscious socialite wife, Cora (Doris Kenyon), seems almost ashamed of. When George is faced with disbarment for an incident of misconduct in his past, his high and mighty world is turned upside-down.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    William Wyler’s engrossing, head-spinning drama features Barrymore in a knockout role as a hotshot attorney with a formidable track record, a notable penchant for hard-luck cases, and a fawning softness for his well-to-do wife, whose affection does not seem nearly so unconditional. As a series of mini dramas play out around Simon- involving agonized clients from the old neighborhood, interactions among his chirpy young staff, and the unspoken, unrequited love of faithful secretary Regina (Daniels), “Counsellor” inexorably builds to a tense climax. Filled with vivid performances by a slew of fine character actors, “Counsellor” is a rapid-fire drama of class and privilege, love and lucre.


    Dodsworth (1936)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a business tycoon, decides to retire and take an extended trip to Europe with wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Unfortunately, Sam’s financial success has only increased Fran’s latent vanity and social-climbing tendencies. No longer distracted by his work, Sam sees his wife’s weaknesses for the first time, as she openly flirts and cavorts with a European aristocrat. Sam must confront the problem in his marriage, then find a way to regain some happiness for himself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Director William Wyler and screenwriter Sydney Howard have crafted an adult, perceptive romantic drama, beautifully played. They wisely minimize the soapiness inherent in the premise, leaving an honest and surprisingly moving film about love lost and re-discovered. The Oscar-nominated Huston is superb.


    Jezebel (1938)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is a willful New Orleans belle engaged to banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) in the antebellum South. Julie is also needy and manipulative, which soon drives Pres away. He later returns with a wife, which foils Julie’s plans for a reconciliation. After finding new ways to cause mischief among the menfolk, Julie seizes one final chance to redeem herself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “Jezebel” was Davis’s consolation prize for not landing the part of Scarlett O’Hara. Inevitably compared to “Gone With the Wind” (released one year later), this lavish melodrama stands on its own, thanks to Wyler’s expert direction and his camera’s loving attention to Warners’ biggest female star. Davis, who nabbed her second best actress Oscar for this, is superb and looks glorious, while Fonda is suitably restrained as Pres. Don’t miss the famous scene at the ball.


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