REEL 13
Best Movies by Farr
  • December 14, 2009

    Twenty-Something Romantic Angst

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Mutual Appreciation, you might also enjoy these great films about twenty-something romance:


    Before Sunrise (1995)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Making his way to Vienna to catch a cheap flight home, 20-something American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) chats up Celine (Julie Delpy), a student at the Sorbonne, on a Eurail train and finds they have a lot in common. When they arrive at his station, Jesse proposes that Celine disembark with him in Vienna and keep him company until his plane leaves the next morning. Impetuously, she agrees, and together they embark on a brief but unforgettable adventure.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This intelligent and unconventional tale of talky romance borrows something from the work of French auteur Eric Rohmer, but “Dazed and Confused” director Linklater – a master of meandering conversation – puts his own stamp on the character-driven drama with searching, tone-perfect dialogue. As the two wander the streets discussing love and sex, history and politics, Hawke and Delpy make attractive kindred spirits whose youthful, sometimes argumentative exchanges really seem to echo life. Despite the R rating, “Sunrise” is an ideal film for teens, as it captures a sense of life’s wondrous possibilities.


    High Fidelity (2000)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Chicago record-shop owner Rob (John Cusack) finds himself examining the sorry state of his obsessive, audiophile lifestyle when his lawyer girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), decides she needs more from Rob than the scruffy, thirty-something vinyl fetishist is willing to give. Dejected, Rob starts looking up ex-girlfriends and inquiring about his serial faults, while Laura hooks up with his supersensitive, dunder-head neighbor, Ian (Tim Robbins). Can Rob win her back?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Frears’s surprisingly insightful film, adapted from the Nick Hornby novel, examines the comic romantic entanglements of a lovable music-store geek. His record stacks and Top Five lists may be in perfect order, but his love life is a shambles, and Cusack plays the part with shaggy-dog affection. Aside from solid direction and a great soundtrack, the other selling point here is the supporting cast, in particular Jack Black as a crass, super-snobby record nerd and Robbins as a New Age devotee. High Fidelity hits a steady, heartfelt groove that will keep you in stitches.


    Regular Lovers (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In the heady days of May 68 in Paris, 20-year-old poet Francois (Louis Garrel) flees the riot cops on the Night of the Barricades and holes up at the flat of opium-smoking bohemian Antoine (Julien Lucas), who houses young artists, druggies, and hangers-on. There, Francois meets free-spirited sculptor Lilie (Hesme), and falls deeply in love. But as the nature of the revolution changes, so does their idealistic and blissful romance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This hypnotic, visually ravishing homage to the spirit of ’68 is an autobiographical tour de force by critically acclaimed French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, who cast his own son as Francois, modeled after his youthful self. Instead of memorializing or sentimentalizing the time, Garrel re-creates the mood of rebellion and youthful vigor in the first half, then allows the story-like the radical political movement itself-to drift into dissolution and disappointment. Garrel’s son Louis is superb as the cerebral, easygoing Francois, and Hesme refreshingly pure as the object of his love and esteem. Beautifully lensed in rich black and white, “Lovers” is a uniquely personal film, a love poem to a utopian moment destined to pass.


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  • December 7, 2009

    Lee J. Cobb

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three films featuring the inimitable Lee J. Cobb.


    Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The true story of an Englishwoman who tutored the King Of Siam’s large family in the mid-19th century, the film traces the unusual relationship that evolves between principled teacher Anna (Irene Dunne), and the irascible but not unkind King (Rex Harrison).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This sumptuous film boasts gorgeous sets, a clever, touching script, and charismatic playing from stars Harrison and Dunne. Also check out young Cobb in an unusual character role. Well-paced and richly rewarding.


    12 Angry Men (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A young man is accused of murder, and as the jury deliberates on a verdict, only one juror (Peter Fonda) holds out for acquittal, causing frustration among the majority. The advocate for reasonable doubt gets under the skin of one particular juror (Lee J. Cobb), whose belief in the man’s guilt is tinged with an underlying anger. As deliberations continue, the pendulum gradually begins to move in the other direction. Still, reaching a unanimous verdict will pose an enormous challenge.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Sidney Lumet’s first feature film is a spare, powerful human drama of the first order. Fonda has never been better as the voice of reason, and his fellow jurors are played by some of the best character actors of the day, including Jack Warden, E.G Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Jack Klugman. Finally, as Fonda’s nemesis, Cobb projects the savage fury of a man too often wronged, a victim of his own blinding ignorance. A big triumph made on a small budget.


    The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Narrated by Alistair Cooke in a pseudo-documentary style, film tells the story of Eve White (Joanne Woodward), a Georgia housewife who visits psychiatrist Dr. Luther (Lee J. Cobb) to seek treatment for headaches and blackouts. Her husband, Ralph (David Wayne), thinks Eve’s faking her ills, but the shrink soon discovers she has multiple-personality disorder, and begins a variety of therapies to merge her three “faces.”

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on an actual case, “Eve” is a distant precursor to the TV drama “Sybil” (also featuring Joanne Woodward) and broke new ground in Hollywood’s treatment of mental illness, while also taking a hard look at prescribed gender roles for women in the 1950s. Few actresses have made a more impressive acting debut than Woodward, starring opposite veteran Cobb, especially since she had three roles to juggle: a dowdy Southern housewife, a libertine, and a pragmatic, cultured woman. She brought off this complex, nuanced characterization with such finesse that she walked away with a Best Actress Oscar.


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  • December 7, 2009

    Movies about Music

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends movies about music and musicians.


    Amadeus (1984)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Told in flashback by aged 18th-century Viennese composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), now confined to an asylum, this drama unveils the rivalry that developed 30 years before between Salieri and 26-year-old music prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), who quickly gains the favor of Joseph II of Austria (Jeffrey Jones). Livid that a vulgar, silly man could be blessed with such talent, the jealous Salieri plots a foolproof way to destroy the gifted composer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A marvelously acted, flawlessly directed story about jealousy, obsession, and perfectionism, Forman’s stunning “Amadeus” mixes suspenseful drama with historical fact to create a winning fictional biography. The lead actors inhabit their roles with gusto, with Hulce’s crass talent playing off Abraham’s guileful Salieri with great results. Neville Marriner brings Mozart’s music to vigorous life. Winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Abraham), “Amadeus” is a triumph that will delight anyone with a soft spot for cracked genius.


    Shine (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    True story of piano prodigy David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush), whose abuse suffered at the hands of his disturbed, exacting father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) only aggravates a precarious emotional state. Eventually, his affliction catches up with a promising concert career, but David has unexpected reserves that eventually allow him to find a fulfilling life-and even love.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Involving, stunningly executed feature benefits from a smart, knowing script and an astonishing, Oscar winning performance by Rush as the adult David. (Noah Taylor also excels playing Helfgott as an adolescent). Mueller-Stahl makes your skin crawl as the haunted father. An often harrowing tale that ends on an uplifting, inspirational note.


    Almost Famous (2000)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Against the wishes of wary mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), aspiring teenage music journalist William (Fugit) takes a plum assignment from Rolling Stone to cover the latest tour of his favorite rock band, Stillwater. On the road, 15-year-old William befriends lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), who keeps promising him a juicy interview, and falls for “band aid” (i.e. groupie) Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who’s barely older than William himself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Set in the early 1970s, and based on actual events in the life of writer-director Cameron Crowe – once an underage Rolling Stone scribe himself – “Almost Famous” is a beautifully observed coming-of-age drama that captures the spirit of an era with soulful warmth and bittersweet insight. Crudup, McDormand, Hudson, and wide-eyed newcomer Fugit all deliver vivid, well-rounded performances, while a brief early appearance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as real-life gonzo critic Lester Bangs remains indelible. Crowe’s songs of innocence and experience will rock your world.


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  • November 30, 2009

    Extra-Marital Movies

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three films for all you philanderers out there.


    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 World of Henry Orient (1964)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Two New York City schoolgirls develop a crush on the title character, a second-rate concert pianist and frustrated ladies’ man (Peter Sellers). They then decide to stalk the poor fellow, foiling his meticulously planned assignations.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Sellers is in rare form as the perpetually striving, but eternally mediocre fraud, Henry Orient. The two girls who pursue him (Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker) give refreshingly natural performances. Paula Prentiss is screamingly funny as one of Orient’s nervous paramours, while Angela Lansbury injects a cold note of evil as one girl’s mother. Beautiful on-location scenery of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.


    Fatal Attraction (1987)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Manhattan lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is happily married to his gorgeous wife Beth (Anne Archer), with whom he has a 6-year-old daughter. After a chance meeting with the sexy, intriguing Alex (Glenn Close) leads to a passionate two-night affair in her apartment, Dan says goodbye and means it. But Alex has no intention of giving up Dan – ever – and proceeds to turn the Gallaghers’ lives into an escalating nightmare.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adrian Lyne’s disturbing “Fatal Attraction” remains the ultimate cautionary tale for extra-marital thrill seekers. What begins as an entirely plausible drama about a one-night stand quickly morphs into a shocking psychological thriller in Lyne’s hands, with Douglas turning in one of the iconic performances of the 80s. But it’s Glenn Close’s bestial, unhinged villainess that made this film a box-office smash. Despite a tacked-on, slasher-movie-style ending, “Attraction” picked up six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.


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  • November 23, 2009

    Deborah Kerr Films to Remember

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs An Affair to Remember, but don’t forget to watch these classic Deborah Kerr films.


    Black Narcissus (1947)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is asked to open a convent-hospital in a former brothel perched high above a small village in India, she readily agrees, despite knowing hardships lie ahead. Once there, she’s greeted by a sardonic Englishman, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), who takes great delight in ruffling Sister Clodagh’s habit. But it’s jealous, unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who eventually succumbs to the dark allure of the exotic, windswept setting.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Another great success for “Red Shoes” helmers Powell-Pressburger, “Narcissus” is an absorbing, finely acted British melodrama about the secular problems facing a new mother superior in an unfamiliar, potentially hostile new environment. The directors even stirred controversy by developing a subtle yet credible sexual tension between the luminous Kerr and hunky Farrar. Jack Cardiff’s Oscar-winning Technicolor photography and Alfred Junge’s hand-crafted art design give this film exceptional production values to boot. And Kathleen Byron’s celebrated turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth climaxes in a suspenseful sequence that’s hard to forget.


    King Solomon’s Mines (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When a hunter disappears in wild, uncharted parts while searching for the fabled mines of King Solomon, rugged adventurer Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger) is hired by the man’s wife, Elizabeth (Deborah Kerr), to lead an expedition to find him. Of course, both Elizabeth and her brother John (Richard Carlson) insist on accompanying the group into the jungle, and despite misgivings, Quartermain reluctantly agrees.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Shot on location in Africa, and featuring the winning team of Granger and Kerr, “Mines” is a handsome, pounding adventure film with plenty of thrills and romance. Thanks to spectacular camerawork by Oscar winner Robert Surtees, the movie is indispensable purely on a visual level, but Granger and Kerr emit powerful screen chemistry too, which makes the epic journey- including snakes, spiders, lions, rhinos, and assorted African tribes-that much more exhilarating.


    Separate Tables (1958)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This brilliant drama, adapted by Terrence Rattigan from his own play, portrays a group of mostly lonely lost souls-including boastful war hero Maj. Pollock (David Niven), mousy spinster Sibyl (Deborah Kerr) and her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper), and alcoholic American writer John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster)–staying at the same English seaside resort. When Malcolm’s ex-wife Ann (Rita Hayworth), a faded beauty, appears unexpectedly, the group’s collective secrets and dreary emotional baggage come tumbling out into the open.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    What in lesser hands could have been a mucky soap-fest becomes instead a subtle, sensitive, intelligent film thanks to director Mann’s deft handling of Rattigan’s Oscar-nominated script. The first-rate group of ensemble players include Niven, Kerr, Lancaster, Hayworth, and the fabulous Wendy Hiller–who (like Niven) won an Oscar for her performance as Pat Cooper, the innkeeper having an affair with Lancaster. “Tables” remains a multi-layered human drama of the highest order.


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  • November 16, 2009

    Brilliant Brenda Blethyn

    by John Farr

    One of John Farr’s favorite actresses in three British films.


    Grown Ups (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Working-class newlyweds Dick (Philip Davis) and Mandy (Lesley Manville) move into their threadbare new row house in Canterbury with humble plans to perk it up but little motivation to do anything but smoke fags and have a pint at the local pub. Next door live stern, callous schoolteacher Mr. Butcher (Sam Kelly) and his good-natured but unhappy wife, Christine (Lindsay Duncan). Both couples’ lives are turned inside out with the arrival of Mandy’s desperately needy sister, Gloria (Brenda Blethyn), a fussy frump who longs to make herself indispensable to everyone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This superbly acted film by English director Mike Leigh (“Naked”) is a bleakly funny slice-of-life tale about two couples mired in somewhat depressing routines. Manville and Davis are delightfully dour as a bickering couple trying to decide whether or not to have a baby, while Kelly and Duncan’s moribund, dysfunctional relationship is alternately hilarious and gut-wrenching to observe. But the film’s greatest asset is Blethyn, whose showstopping meltdown on the Butchers’ staircase is the work of a champion actress – one fully in touch with the depths of despair. “Grown Ups” is a sweetly madcap gem for the feeble-minded fussbudget in all of us.


    Secrets and Lies (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After the death of her adoptive parents, soft-spoken West Indian optometrist Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) sets out to find her birth motherwho shes surprised to learn is a white woman named Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn), a sad-sack factory worker with an embittered, street-sweeper daughter (Claire Rishbrook). After meeting for tea, the two eventually develop a bond, with Hortense guiding Cynthia onto a path to reconciliation with her estranged family.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Leigh’s bittersweet family drama “Secrets and Lies” showcases the superb acting talents of British veteran Blethyn, who picked up a Best Actress nomination for her (mostly improvised) work alongside co-star Jean-Baptiste. Leigh’s long, static shots-especially of the first confused meeting between Cynthia and Hortense at a London teashop-are admirable feats that give you the sense you’ve known these characters for years. Kudos also to Timothy Spall, playing the bearish brother Cynthia longs to reconnect with. For an emotionally enriching film that deals intelligently with class, race, and family conflict, check out “Secrets and Lies.”


    Little Voice (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Little Voice (Jane Horrocks) is a shy young woman with an extraordinary singing voice, though no one knows it except her mother, Mari (Brenda Blethyn). One night, Mari meets smarmy talent agent Ray (Caine) at a bar, and brings him home, where he hears LV warble a perfect rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Smelling a sensation in the making, Ray sets out to arrange for her public debut, but the road to stardom is pockmarked with jealousy, anger, and more than a few complications.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Mark Herman’s utterly winning “Little Voice” was an indie sensation in Britain, where it charmed the socks off audiences. Blethyn’s hilariously histrionic turn as LV’s overbearing mum won her an Oscar nod for best supporting actress, and Caine’s own performance as a venal manager with a thing for Roy Orbison has a humorous bite. But the star is Horrocks herself, who gives a tour de force performance as the introvert with golden pipes (just wait for her showstopping debut). “Little Voice” might be a modest film, but it has a whole lot of heart.


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  • November 16, 2009

    Tony Richardson Times Three

    by John Farr

    Three early 60s gems from director Tony Richardson.


    The Entertainer (1960)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fading vaudeville comic Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) plays to virtually empty music halls in Britain’s seaside provinces, limping through the same stale routines in garish make-up, but side-steps his failure through pathetic flings with younger women. Selfish, arrogant, and insensitive to those around him, especially alcoholic wife Phoebe (Brenda De Banzie), Archie ultimately damages the lives of everyone in his family, including doting daughter Jean (Joan Plowright).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ironically the foremost symbol of traditional English theatre, Olivier showed off his astounding range with an anti-heroic, tour-de-force turn in Tony Richardson’s 1960 drama, adapted from John Osborne’s play. Reprising his celebrated stage role, Sir Larry has a field-day playing Rice, a somewhat ghoulish has-been who personifies his own nation’s decay, and the effort earned him an Oscar nomination. De Banzie and newcomer Plowright (who’d go on to marry Olivier) excel in supporting roles.


    The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sentenced to a boys reformatory for robbing a bakery, rebellious English punk Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) soon attracts the interest of the schools Governor (Michael Redgrave) for his athletic prowess. Hoping to groom Colin for a cross-country race against a public school, the Governor endows him with special privileges. But is the embittered Colin willing to be house-trained?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the best of Britain’s Angry Young Man films, Richardson’s expressive drama hinges on the complex psychology of Colin, an uneducated but cunning youth still smarting from the recent death of his father. Richardson builds tension by cutting between the restrictions and tensions of reform-school life and Colin’s recollection of events leading up to his arrest and detention. Courtenay (“of “Billy Liar” fame) gives a haunting performance in the title role, and Redgrave is masterful playing a cold rehabilitator obsessed with winning a trophy. For a powerful expression of working-class disaffection, go the distance with “Runner.”


    Tom Jones (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Based on Henry Fielding’s book, Tom (Albert Finney) is a fortunate orphan adopted by a wealthy squire in eighteenth century Britain. In young adulthood, Tom’s good looks and lusty nature fuel an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex . With various parties set against him due to his humble birth and shaky morality, our hero can’t win the approval of Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) to marry beautiful daughter Sophie (Susannah York). Soon Tom must leave home to seek his fortune, and a host of bawdy adventures ensue. Will Tom ever be found worthy of his beloved Sophie?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Tony Richardson’s rousing film has all vital elements in proper alignment: a brilliant screenplay by playwright John Osborne, swift pacing fueled by John Addison’s zippy harpsichord score, and colorful performances from a powerhouse cast including Griffith, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, and a young David Warner as the priggish Mr. Blifil. York is the epitome of fair English beauty, and Finney carries off the central role with gusto. Sumptuous color photography is another bonus. Don’t miss the famous Finney/Cilento eating scene.


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  • November 9, 2009

    Tougher Tony

    by John Farr

    Tony Leung Chu Wai often portrays broken-hearted loners… but not in these roles.


    Hard-Boiled (1992)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Renegade Hong Kong cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) is relentless in his pursuit of a brutal gang of gun smugglers, but he has a softer side, too, especially for co-worker Teresa. When his partner is killed in a shoot-out at a restaurant, Tequila is forced to team up with Tony (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a mysterious undercover cop embedded deep in the mobs killer-for-hire network.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Before he became a well-regarded Hollywood action director, John Woo (“Face/Off”) made this superb police thriller, the most energetic and hyped-up of his many Hong Kong ventures. Known as the Chinese De Niro, Chow Yun-Fat is by turns aggressive and cool in the role of Tequila, a cop who thinks nothing of unloading a hailstorm of bullets in a teashop but who nurses an odd fondness for his enigmatic counterpart, played with stone-faced rigor by Chiu Wai. With his trademark guns-blazing style and fluid, slow-motion theatrics, Woo stacks one ballet-of-blood on top of another, with a body count to rival any Scorsese film. But it’s the audacious finale-a shootout set in a maternity ward-that makes this “Hard-Boiled” cop story an absolute must-see.


    Infernal Affairs (2002)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang) has planted young gangster Ming (Lau) in the Hong Kong police department to track the authorities anti-mob activities. At the same time, Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) has hand-picked police-academy recruit Yan (Wai) to work undercover in Sams gang. As the two moles work diligently at cross-purposes, they each begin to lose a sense of their real identity, while their respective bosses wage a war of nerves that will eventually place Ming and Yan on a collision course.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Remade by Martin Scorsese as “The Departed,” Lau and Mak’s superior “Affairs” is the kind of clever, suspenseful, genre-twisting epic Hong Kong cinema has been famous for in recent years. The directors examine the meaning of loyalty and honor while blurring the line between good and evil, and the result is a wrenching psychological cop thriller with a pace all its own. Asian star Lau is marvelous playing opposite the equally charismatic Wai, and the film gets an extra boost from its superb visuals. “Affairs” is thrilling, intelligent, and easy to love.


    Lust, Caution (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    With Japan occupying China during WWII, gorgeous young actress Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is recruited by student dramatist Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom) to seduce a bigwig collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chu Wai), who’s been targeted for assassination. At first, things go according to script, but unexpected turns put Wong in grave danger.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ang Lee is best known to American audiences for his Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” But he returned to Hong Kong to make this ravishing political thriller, and included lovemaking scenes so graphic (i.e. so hot) he got slapped with an NC-17. Regardless, Lee knows how to direct actors in any language, and here he draws on the great talents of Leung, Chen, and smoldering newcomer Wei, mashing up intrigue and romance with an enthralling story of national identity. Proceed with “Caution”!


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  • November 9, 2009

    All You Can View: Busby Berkeley

    by John Farr

    Five films featuring epic set pieces and choreography.


    The Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 1

    What It’s About

    The plots of these five early “backstage” musicals are all variations on a theme: in tough times, the (musical) show must go on, even if the leading lady falls ill, or the funding isn’t there, or one of the stars turns out to be a high society type whose family doesn’t approve of show people. And thankfully, with all the intrigues and anxieties of putting on a revue, not to mention the inevitable romantic complications, the show always does go on, and it’s there we see the genius of choreographer Berkeley, whose grand, stunningly kaleidoscopic dance sequences still take our breath away.

    Why I Love It

    Warner’s hit musical “42nd Street” spawned a wildly successful franchise of glittering follow-ups, with the common ingredients Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (except for the last picture), and the spectacular staging and choreography of Busby Berkeley. Guests include James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Hugh Herbert, and Adolphe Menjou, among others. And those songs: “We’re In The Money”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, “Shuffle Off To Buffalo”, and “I Only Have Eyes For You” are highlights. Need I say more?


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  • October 22, 2009

    Flick-or-Treat

    by John Farr

    John Farr goes flick-or-treating for Halloween’s most haunting flicks.


    Freaks (1932)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In a traveling circus, beautiful but treacherous trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) learns that fellow worker Hans (Harry Earles), a midget, has money, and plots to marry him, then bump him off to get it. She doesn’t count on the fact that Hans is part of a very tight circle of side-show performers, and that they always protect their own kind.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Reviled and in some places banned on release, Tod Browning’s horror classic is like nothing else you’ll ever see – bizarre, bold, and altogether brilliant. A standard soap opera premise is elevated by the conceit of “normal” people as villains, “freaks” as heroes. Browning gets the most out of his unusual cast, mostly non-actors, and creates an eerie, chill-inducing atmosphere throughout. Don’t miss that knockout climax.


    The Haunting (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a professor of the paranormal, sets out to discover whether the infamous Hill House is truly haunted or not, with the help of several human guinea pigs. What happens to the group “in the night, in the dark” leaves no doubt as to the answer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Among a stellar cast, Julie Harris stands out as a spellbinding spinster whom the ghosts of Hill House single out for special attention. A sexually ambiguous Claire Bloom also registers as the clairvoyant Regina. Veteran director Robert Wise masterfully orchestrates tools of the trade to create perhaps the quintessential filmed ghost story, applying a degree of restraint and subtlety generally absent from more modern horror entries. Remade but never equalled.


    The Descent (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Still reeling from a deadly car crash the year before, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) travels to the U.S. with her friend Beth (Alex Reid) to participate in a spelunking expedition organized by her jocky pal Juno (Natalie Mendoza), with whom she has some post- traumatic personal issues. Along with three other female friends, the group descends into an uncharted cave system expecting a weekend of adventure. But tensions rise after a cave-in, when they discover that not only are they profoundly lost in the primordial darkness, but they are not alone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Not the feeble-minded breasts-and-beasts horror flick that’s virtually defined the genre since the ’80s, Marshall’s “Descent” is smart, psychologically tense, and scary as hell. Yes, there’s a lot of gruesome goings-on in this claustrophobic hellhole, but part of the fun of watching it (if you’re into this kind of thing) is figuring out exactly what’s stalking the poor lasses. One or many? And is the cavern breathing or is that my imagination? Solid direction, imaginative editing, and eerie production design take “Descent” even further into nail-biting realms of pure terror.


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  • October 19, 2009

    Can’t Get Enough Astaire

    by John Farr

    Fred Astaire made films you can watch over and over again.


    Easter Parade (1948)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dumped on Easter by longstanding dance partner Nadine (Ann Miller), Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) rashly wagers he can still draw crowds even teamed with the greenest of chorus girls. Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) is his pick, and Don begins grooming her for stardom.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    In this joyous musical romp, MGM producer Arthur Freed paired Garland with the recently “retired” Astaire after original lead Gene Kelly injured his ankle. Combining Astaire’s moves and Garland’s pipes with a phenomenal Irving Berlin score adapted by Johnny Green and Roger Edens, highlights include the vaudevillian duet “We’re a Couple of Swells” and Astaire’s excellent solo to “Steppin’ Out With My Baby”. The movie was a big success in 1948, and no wonder! By all means, step out with this title.


    The Band Wagon (1955)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Astaire does a semi-autobiographical turn as Tony Hunter, a fading movie star who looks to the New York stage to revive his stalled career, and meets exquisite ballerina, Gabrielle (Cyd Charisse) in the process, along with a host of other colorful Broadway characters. While Tony and Gabrielle don’t hit it off right away, they eventually dance together, which thaws relations.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This film has everything you would expect from an Astaire/ Minnelli collaboration – a first-rate score, color, inventive dance numbers, and overall lots of energy, style and class. Hunter’s film career may be on the wane, but nothing in his dancing indicate why. The smoldering Charisse sets off more sparks than Ginger Rogers ever did, as the athletic, sensual Gabriella. And veteran English song-and-dance man Jack Buchanan is a hoot.


    Funny Face (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fashion photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) transforms Paris bookstore clerk Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) into a modeling sensation. It’s all a souffle-light pretext for breathtaking sets, music and dancing.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Combine the moves of Fred Astaire, the grace of Audrey Hepburn and the talents of Director Stanley Donen with the city of Paris and a Gershwin soundtrack, and what have you got? Movie paradise. Prepare to be delighted: this 50th Anniversary edition is “Swonderful, Smarvelous!” Look for Eloise-creator Kay Thompson playing a fashion editor modeled on Diana Vreeland.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • October 19, 2009

    In the Face of Dying

    by John Farr

    Movies about the way we cope with dying.


    The Seventh Seal (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Returning home from the Crusades to find his country wracked with plague and misery, 14th-century knight Antonius (Max Von Sydow) concludes that God does not exist. At the height of his despair, the wandering Antonius is visited by Death (Bengt Ekerot). Hoping to forestall the inevitable, Antonius invites the black-cloaked figure to play a game of chess, agreeing to accompany the Grim Reaper if he loses. Visited by a parade of believers and nonbelievers over the course of the game, Antonius and Death immerse themselves in philosophical debates about belief, existence, and the nature of good and evil.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the most influential films ever made, Bergman’s “Seal” is a mesmerizing, apocalyptic allegory whose universal themes and striking beauty-beautifully captured in Allen Ekelund’s magnificent black-and-white photography-continue to inspire reverence. Bergman regulars Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson, and Nils Poppe are sensational in supporting roles, while the long-faced Von Sydow makes a perfectly dour, disillusioned knight. With its witches and flagellants, madmen and plague victims, Bergman’s “Seal” is filled with all manner of fascinating images, capped by a dance-with-Death finale you’ll never forget.


    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.


    Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When their girlfriends head to Europe for the summer, Mexican teens Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gabriel Garcia Bernal) gear up for some uninhibited fun. At a wedding, they meet sexy, spirited Luisa (Maribel Verdu), who’s 10 years their senior, and playfully invite her along on a road trip to a beach called Heavens Mouth, ostensibly in Oaxaca, expecting her to decline. Instead, she takes them up on the offer, and the threesome embark on a journey marked by erotic shenanigans and jealousy.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Cuaron’s exhilarating story of a Mexican menage a trois is steamy and titillating, surely one reason the film performed so well in American theaters. But it also engages closely and intelligently with the class divide in Mexico, epitomized by the jealous contretemps between upper-class Tenoch and the less-privileged Julio for Luisa’s affections, and by the crushing poverty they see on their decadent car trip. No mere tart, Cuaron’s “Mama” dazzles with superb acting and a stirring storyline that’s alternately lighthearted, soulful, and red-hot.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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