REEL 13
Best Movies by Farr
  • October 13, 2009

    Other Edwards

    by John Farr

    John Farr explores the serious side of “Pink Panther” director Blake Edwards.


    Breakfast at Tiffany’s

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Charming, bubbly Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) leads a peripatetic life in Manhattan, attending swanky parties and living off the largesse of her gentleman acquaintances, who keep her attired in the very best designer outfits. Intrigued by Holly’s coming and goings, as well as her bouts of wistful loneliness, upstairs neighbor Paul (George Peppard) falls for the neurotic socialite. But is there something hidden behind Holly’s sophisticated facade?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from Truman Capote’s novella, Edwards’s fleet-footed romantic comedy would not be the cultural touchstone it is without the effervescent presence of Hepburn. As Holly Golightly, a small-town Texas girl with her feet planted firmly in the glitz of New York’s party scene, Hepburn is irrepressibly charming, a vision of elflike beauty in Givenchy and pearls. But she is also a frail creature harboring secrets, and Hepburn plays both sides exquisitely. Peppard is solid and likable as writer Paul, Holly’s admirer and confidante, while Patricia Neal chews on her steely role as Paul’s wealthy older mistress. A chic, iconic romance, memorably set to the Oscar-winning strains of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River.”


    Experiment in Terror

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Kelly Sherwood is an attractive bank employee who lives with younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers) in San Francisco. When Kelly is accosted by a wheezing psychopath (Ross Martin) who threatens to kill her and her sister unless she embezzles money from her bank, FBI agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) is called in to handle the tricky case. Can Ripley nab his man before Kelly and Toby are harmed?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Blake Edwards, best known for comedies, shows he can pull off thrillers with equal skill. Make no mistake: this one is lean, gritty and frightening. Remick is solid as a victim ripe for the plucking, and Ford appropriately stolid as the dedicated Ripley. And villain Martin (who’d go on to play Artemus Gordon on TV’s “The Wild, Wild West”) will make your skin crawl with that wheezing whisper. Be warned: not for the faint of heart.


    Days of Wine and Roses

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After an awkward meeting at a boat party seems to put them at odds, publicist Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) and Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick) fall madly in love. The social and professional demands of the public-relations racket are nothing new to Joe, but gradually he turns tee-totaller Kirsten on to the pleasures of swilling cocktails at any hour. Over time, alcohol becomes integral to the young newlyweds’ relationship, and threatens to destroy their blissful existence.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A downbeat love story pickled in bile and booze, this melodrama of addiction by the great Blake Edwards skirts the same terrain as “Lost Weekend” without ever getting preachy. Instead, Edwards examines the sullied yet undying connection between his two self-destructive protagonists, played by Lemmon and Remick with unblinking honesty. (Two specific scenes-his in a madhouse and hers in a motel-are wrenching.) Charles Bickford lends terrific support as Kirsten’s widower father, as does Jack Klugman in a small role as Joe’s AA sponsor. “Days” is a hard-hitting drama about love in the ruins, buoyed by Henry Mancini’s melancholic jazz score.


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  • October 13, 2009

    Killer Cage

    by John Farr

    John Farr serves up some killer Nic Cage.


    Moonstruck

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Loretta (Cher) is a young Italian-American widow set to marry Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). Only problem: while Johnny’s away, Loretta falls for Johnny’s younger brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Meanwhile, mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis) has her own romantic troubles keeping the embers burning with pre-occupied husband Cosmo (Gardenia).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and winning statuettes for co-stars Cher and Dukakis, this movie overflows with off-kilter charm and humor. Cher hits all the right notes as the bewildered Loretta, but Dukakis comes off best in the tricky role of Rose – a rare woman who’s as wise about herself as others and faces a challenging personal situation with grace and dignity. A flavorful, heartwarming delight from director Norman Jewison.

    Leaving Las Vegas

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Depressed Hollywood screenwriter Ben (Nicolas Cage) arrives in Las Vegas with one goal: to drink himself to death. On the Strip one night, he picks up fresh-faced hooker Sera (Elisabeth Shue), who takes a liking to the self-destructive Ben. As their friendship turns into a damaged love affair, they accept each other unconditionally, with Sera agreeing never to ask Ben to stop drinking-no matter what.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Filmed on a shoestring by Figgis, who also contributed the haunting jazz score, “Vegas” is a fearlessly downbeat love story about desperation and despair that was rapturously received at the box office in 1995. Cage won an Oscar for his gritty, go-for-broke portrayal of the suicidal Ben, and Shue made the leap from TV’s “Melrose Place” to the big screen with her convincingly raw, Oscar-nominated performance-especially in one horrific motel scene. Adapted from John O’Brien’s novel, “Vegas” is one cinematic bender that leaves a strangely blissful hangover.

    Face/Off

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Deranged criminal mastermind Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage), currently in a coma, has planted a biological weapon somewhere in LA and only his equally psychotic brother Pollux (Allesandro Nivola) knows where. Crack FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) has a long, painful history battling the Troys, and undergoes a radical medical procedure transferring Castor’s face to his own, in hopes that once he’s reunited with Pollux in prison, the ever loyal little brother will talk. But the insensate Castor’s got life in him yet, and unfortunately, Archer has left his own face behind.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Despite the grotesque, almost preposterous premise, Hong Kong director John Woo’s second American-made actioner has all the savage bite, black humor, and balletic fight choreography of his best-known Asian films. Deliberately mythic in concept, “Face/Off” probes questions of honor, identity, and morality while giving Travolta and Cage plenty of leeway to stretch their archetypal good-and-evil personas. Ingenious, kinetic and reveling in its choreographed, over the top violence, “Face/Off” is a complex thriller that’s bloody good fun.


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  • September 23, 2009

    Prime Kazan

    by John Farr

    John Farr on one of the greats, director Elia Kazan, and three of his less-celebrated pictures.


    Panic in the Streets (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Early Elia Kazan suspenser centers around an increasingly desperate search for two criminals on the lam in New Orleans (played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel), who, unbeknownst to them, have been infested with Bubonic plague. If health inspector Dr. Clint Reed (Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) don’t nab their quarry fast, this killer plague will spread and put the whole country at risk.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Breathlessly exciting film is one of the best manhunt pictures ever made, with the plague twist adding an extra jolt of tension. Kazan’s peerless on-location shooting never obscures the terrific acting from the four central characters, comprising both hunters and hunted. Palance is positively magnetic. Don’t miss this one.


    A Face in the Crowd (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Local radio interviewer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) decides to interview transients at the local jail for a human interest story. There, she spots a drunken Arkansas hayseed named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), whom she discovers has rare gift for gab and song. Before long, due to Marcia’s initial boosting, “Lonesome” becomes a wildly popular network TV star. Little does she know she’s creating a monster.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This engrossing and sobering tale about the precarious and poisonous nature of fame in our mass-media age seems even more timely today. Budd Schulberg’s script (who also wrote “On The Waterfront”) literally sizzles, and Neal is superb. As to Andy, this role made him, but he sure is a long way from Mayberry! An impossibly cute, young Remick (as Betty Lou, Lonesome’s baton twirling, clueless child bride Betty Lou, and Franciosa as a slimeball talent agent do fine work; the legendary Matthau is also on hand in a subtle, sad-sack turn as a wise but weary network executive. This is one “Face” you’ll never forget.


    Splendor in the Grass (1961)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Rich kid Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and high-school beauty Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) are going steady in 1920s Kansas, but though the torch of love burns hot and bright, Deanie resists giving up her virginity to Bud, whose sexual frustration drives him into the arms of other, “looser” girls. The fragile Deanie, meanwhile, is driven over the edge by her shrewish mother (Audrey Christie), and her own raging hormones.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Handsome and emitting the masculine musk that would soon turn him into a rakish sex symbol, Beatty makes an assured screen debut in Elia Kazan’s “Grass,” starring opposite an exquisitely lovely and tortured Wood, playing one of Hollywood’s most memorable sexual hysterics. (Reportedly, the two young stars had some sexual hysterics off the sound-stage as well.) Think Douglas Sirk or Tennessee Williams and you have some idea where Kazan’s wonderfully executed tale of young love, scripted by William Inge, eventually tumbles. Keep an eye out too for Phyllis Diller and a young Sandy Dennis, also making her big-screen debut.


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  • September 23, 2009

    Lesser-Known Coen + The Big Lebowski

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s salute to the Coen Brothers.


    Blood Simple (1985)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Suspecting his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) of cheating on him, Texas bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires shlumpy, unscrupulous private dick Visser (C. Emmett Walsh) to murder Abby and her lover Ray (John Getz), one of Marty’s employees. But Visser decides to rig the job and double-cross Marty, leading to a devious turn of events that implicates the innocent lovers in murder.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Filmed on a shoestring budget by Joel Coen and his producer brother Ethan, this heart-pounding homage to 1940s film noir was instantly hailed as a classic of American indie cinema. Featuring Barry Sonnenfeld’s innovative camerawork and murky lighting, “Simple” not only tells a dark, disturbing tale of murder, passion, and back-stabbing meanness, it introduces the marvelously talented McDormand and features a brilliant performance by Walsh as a sleazy, audaciously amoral gumshoe. Inspired by the novels of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, “Blood Simple” is a gutsy, dark-comic debut thriller by the directors of “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski”.


    Miller’s Crossing (1990)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Leo O’Bannion (Albert Finney) is a crime boss with a big problem: his girlfriend’s brother Bernie (John Turturro) has cheated the head of the rival Italian gang, who wants Bernie dead. Leo lets his love for Verna (Harden) interfere with his business sense, and resolves to protect Bernie, even if it means starting a war. This decision puts Leo’s trusted lieutenant Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) on the outs with his mentor, but Tom steadily works to put things right behind the scenes.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A sharp, innovative send-up of everything from “The Public Enemy” to “The Godfather,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant “Crossing” has enough surprising twists, gnarled plotlines, and double crosses to fill several noir movies. Byrne is excellent as Tom, a loyal, boozing mobster whose inveterate gambling and torrid affair with the boss’s girl (Harden, in her debut), eventually land him in hot water with Finney’s Leo. Coens fave Turturro also has a brilliant turn as the weaselly Bernie. Evocative, clever, and beautifully played, “Crossing” is an under-rated homage to the gangster movies perfected by Warners in the 1930s.


    The Big Lebowski (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Super laid-back ’60s dropout Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) enjoys hanging loose and getting high with his two bowling pals, cranky Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and easygoing ex-surfer Donny (Steve Buscemi). But his groovy-loser L.A. lifestyle is about to undergo a massive makeover when some thugs looking for a millionaire named “Jeff Lebowski” bust into his Venice bungalow and drag him into a tangled kidnapping scheme.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ace filmmaking team Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”) took more than a few pages from Raymond Chandler’s seedy L.A. noir novels to create this absurdly comic caper masterpiece. Bridges is riotous as the unflappable aging hippie who finds himself embroiled in double and triple extortion plots-think Phillip Marlowe on a bag of weed-while superb sidekicks Goodman and Buscemi get to sling around a lot of ripe witticisms. Also great is John Turturro, playing a vulgar-mouthed champion bowler named Jesus, and Julianne Moore, fetching as an “erotic artist.” In typical Coen fashion, the camerawork is wildly offbeat, the dialogue sharp, and the performances goofy and intriguing. Don’t miss this kooky homage to the weird world of noir.


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  • September 16, 2009

    Teachers We’ve Known

    by John Farr

    If you ever had a special teacher these films are for you.


    Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Told mainly in flashbacks, “Chips” traces the life of a beloved schoolmaster who serves over fifty years in an English public school. Reminiscing about his personal life and long career, the shy, unassuming Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) also recalls his unexpected courtship and marriage to his stunning and spirited wife Katherine (Greer Garson).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A nostalgic paean to Old England and a deeply affecting story of honorable service, “Chips” succeeds admirably, mainly due to British actor Donat’s touching performance. Donat broke “Gone with the Wind”‘s Academy Award sweep in 1939, stealing the Best Actor statuette from under Clark Gable’s nose. In addition, beautiful English ingénue Garson became an overnight star in the small but pivotal role of Chips’s enchanting wife. Though sentimental by today’s standards, this is a grand and moving classic for the ages.


    To Sir, with Love (1967)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this triumphant urban drama, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a determined teacher out of his element in a tough London high school. Initially facing apathy and resistance from his students, Thackeray ditches the lesson plan and speaks directly to their inner characters, transforming his unruly charges into hopeful–and grateful–young people.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Made the same year as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” James Clavell’s marvelous film-a huge hit in 1967-succeeds largely because of its lead actor. Shattering age-old stereotypes about race in all his roles, Sidney Poitier exuded nobility, strength, intelligence, and humility. Never with a chip on his shoulder, never self-pitying, he commands respect-Thackeray’s students call him “Sir”-showing anger only when provoked by others’ ignorance. “To Sir With Love” is a lasting testament to that impressive strength of character, and a demonstration of how it can be cultivated in others.


    To Be and To Have (2002)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Shot in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, this documentary portrays the magical innocence of children and the loving dedication of one teacher, Georges Lopez. Set to retire after 35 years, Lopez instructs, engages, and inspires several grades of schoolchildren in the course of a school year, touching all their lives.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Any parents out there should quickly lay their hands on the sublime “To Be,” an intimate and heartwarming study of hands-on education in a tiny classroom. What would be a daunting task for most of us is, for Georges Lopez, the application of a natural gift to a highly rewarding purpose. Georges’s innate connection with the 12 children under his care is humbling, and the wistful expression on his face at the end of the school term will put tears in your eyes.


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  • September 16, 2009

    Latino Cinema

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three classic films about Latinos in America.


    El Norte (1983)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When the Guatemalan army murders their father, impoverished Quiche Indian siblings Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zadie Silvia Gutierrez) decide to make a dangerous trek north through Mexico, hoping to find a better life in Los Angeles as undocumented immigrants. Some help and others prey on the teens, on both sides of the border, exploiting their constant fear of being deported and returned to the misery of peasant life.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Bringing into focus both the plight of illegal U.S. immigrants and the persecution of Indian peasants in Central American nations, Nava’s “El Norte” is an eloquent, honest, and sobering testimony about the simple quest for freedom that defines us all. Nava spares nothing in depicting the trials of his cross-border hopefuls: Enrique and Rosa are beset by an unscrupulous smuggler, bullish cops and border agents, noxious employers, and even insensitive Chicanos. Brutal and harrowing, “El Norte” scrutinizes the hard lives and shattered hopes of undocumented workers with gritty, suspenseful realism.


    Bread and Roses (2000)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    L.A. organizer Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody) wants to unionize a local janitorial service, largely comprised of illegal immigrants. Without rights, these workers are regularly abused and mistreated for substandard wages. Mexican-American worker Maya (Pilar Padilla) becomes a key supporter, risking her own position, much to the consternation of sister and fellow employee Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who must support a disabled husband and can’t afford to lose her job. With so much on the line, will the workers prevail?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The conflict between principle and practical reality is deftly explored by British director Loach in this affecting drama set in present-day Southern California, and features earthy performances by Brody and formidable newcomer Padilla. An intense, authentic depiction of our most vulnerable workers’ struggle for a decent life, the film underscores the importance of taking a stand, however daunting. Shedding light on the desperate lives of people largely ignored in contemporary times, “Roses” is a tense, moving story about those still seeking – and being denied – the American Dream.


    Raising Victor Vargas (2002)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an upright, god-fearing Dominican lady (Altagracia Guzman) struggles to bring up her three grandchildren. The eldest, sixteen year old Victor (Victor Rasuk), is her biggest worry. A self-styled ladies’ man, the inexperienced Victor sets his cap for “Juicy Judy” Gonzalez (Judy Marte), a local beauty who seems way beyond him in wordliness. As Victor enters into the pitfalls and raptures of first love, Grandma imagines Victor indulging in a world of sin, which threatens to corrupt his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), the apple of her eye. Will Victor manage to steer this tricky course so that he gets the girl, while keeping his fiery Grandma under control?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This winning coming-of-age romance disarms the viewer with its authenticity and depth of feeling. Director Sollett coaxes incredibly natural performances from his young cast of unknowns, and builds a story that avoids the usual grim stereotypes about urban ethnic life. Though somewhat misguided, we know Grandma’s heart is in the right place; amidst all the conflicts that arise, an undercurrent of love remains. Both Rasuk and Marte do fabulous work, and their budding romance is believably and touchingly rendered. A wonderfully wise and human film.


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  • September 9, 2009

    Legendary Lancaster

    by John Farr

    John Farr lists his picks for legendary Burt Lancaster films.


    Brute Force (1947)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Tough, unsmiling inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) has spent much of his long prison term butting heads with sadistic, power-hungry Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Sentenced to a merciless work detail in the subterranean drain pipe after one of Munsey’s stool pigeons is killed in a machine-shop accident, Collins determines to hatch a breakout plan with his cellmates.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Made just prior to “Naked City,” Dassin’s gritty prison melodrama puts a twist on the archetypal bust-out scheme by revisiting, in flashback, the pre-penitentiary lives of Collins – ably played by an intense young Lancaster – and his crew, colorfully brought to life by character actors Whit Bissell, Howard Duff, and John Hoyt. In a fine performance, Charles Bickford appears as the prison’s gruff de facto leader and newspaper editor who throws in his lot with Collins. The other ace in Dassin’s deck is Cronyn, playing a corrupt, savage prison guard bent on bringing “discipline” to his inmates, while nursing a megalomaniacal ambition to replace the wimpy Warden. Aside from the ominous noir visuals, Dassin explores issues endemic to prison life and wraps them up in an ugly finale meant to evoke a Nazi bloodbath.


    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.


    Local Hero (1983)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A large Texas oil and gas company wants to purchase a small Scottish town and turn it into a refinery. The company sends along Mac (Peter Riegert), the proverbial smooth salesman, to negotiate with the locals. Any hopes of closing the deal quickly evaporate as Mac must adjust to the more leisurely rhythms of the town’s natives. To force matters to a head, Mr. Happer (Burt Lancaster) , the company’s remote, eccentric leader, ultimately flies in for a personal visit. But is oil the only thing on Happer’s mind?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Bursting with unique personality and charm, “Hero” is a touching fable about finding magic in the everyday business of living. Riegert is spot-on as Mac, a man who thinks he understands his place in the world and then gets gradually transformed by a special time and place. The larger-than-life Lancaster is worth the wait, dominating the film’s later scenes as star-struck Happer. A movie with heart and spirit, that sneaks up on you.


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  • September 9, 2009

    The African-American Experience

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends films that explore the African-American experience.


    Nothing but a Man (1964)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this landmark independent film by Michael Roemer, Duff (Ivan Dixon), a struggling black railroad worker meets Josie (Abbey Lincoln), a shy, refined preacher’s daughter. They fall in love, but soon Josie must adjust to Duff’s frustration as he faces discrimination in a repetitive, dead-end job. How they surmount these obstacles and stay together shines a penetrating light on the black experience of the time.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A lean film of unusual grace and power, thanks to a perceptive script and solid characterizations. Both Dixon and jazz singer Lincoln give heartfelt portrayals as Duff and Josie, and look for the late, great Julius Harris playing Duff’s drunk, delinquent father. “Nothing” is an inspiring work of cinema that helped fuel the Civil Rights era, and still speaks volumes today.


    Killer of Sheep (1977)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Living hand to mouth in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) toils at a slaughterhouse, where the dispiriting and mind-numbing routine of dispatching livestock leaves him emotionally remote from his wife (Kaycee Moore) and young son. Under these circumstances, life’s pleasures come in small and unexpected ways.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Burnett’s tender, affecting film, a landmark in American independent cinema, hasn’t much of a plot, content instead to observe the melancholic daily existence of an impoverished African-American neighborhood. But its neorealist aesthetic, lugubrious pace, and minimal storyline are the ingredients for a surprisingly moving film that depicts ghetto life with lasting beauty and an authentic sense of humanity. Both touching and heartbreaking, with a sweet jazz score setting a mood of inner yearning, “Killer of Sheep”, hidden away too long, should be at the top of your must-see list.


    4 Little Girls (1997)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Spike Lee’s documentary re-visits a shocking crime which shook the nation in 1963, when a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama was blown up, killing four African-American girls. Film combines reminiscences of the girls’ families and friends with observations on the times and the event’s broader significance within the Civil Rights movement.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    An invaluable piece of film-making, as Lee revisits an atrocity we should never forget. The overwhelming sense of personal loss is palpable and heart-rending. It’s also striking how the tragedy accelerated the progress of civil rights by thrusting the race issue onto the world stage. Ultimately, these four promising, innocent girls are seen as martyrs to the age-old struggle for racial equality. A touching, insightful film from Lee.


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  • August 31, 2009

    Best of Donald Sutherland

    by John Farr

    John Farr salutes Donald Sutherland’s finest films.


    Klute (1971)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A killer is stalking Bree Daniel (Jane Fonda), a would-be actress and high-class call girl. Detective Klute (Donald Sutherland) meets her while investigating the mysterious disappearance of a male relative. It’s evident that Bree is a pivotal link in Sutherland’s investigation, but she herself has no idea what that link is, which only makes her more vulnerable. Could she be next to disappear?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Director Pakula builds a creepy, paranoiac mood that makes for mesmerizing viewing. Fonda brings texture and dimension to the central role – part cynical, hardened hooker, part confused young woman – too frightened to let anyone into her life. Fonda deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar that year. Sutherland is effectively subdued as John Klute.


    Don’t Look Now (1973)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After the drowning death of their young daughter, British couple John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) travel to the ancient port city of Venice, where he is overseeing the restoration of a dilapidated church. As the canals begin to spill over with murder victims, John experiences increasingly unsettling visions, and Laura slowly loses her grip on sanity.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a ghost story by Daphne du Maurier, Nicolas Roeg’s spooky, enigmatic thriller offers just the right mix of surreal intensity and emotional distress, aided by the presence of two creepy old sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania), who claim to have psychic contact with the Baxters’ dead child. Roeg gets a lot of mileage out of the labyrinthine streets and murky canals of Venice, which has an otherworldly atmosphere all its own. When John catches a glimpse of a tiny, red-coated figure darting in and out of blind alleys, the hairs on your neck will stand at attention. Definitely not for all tastes, but an arty, eerie entry for those seeking something different. Note: not appropriate for kids, mainly due to one memorably steamy sex scene.


    Day of the Locust (1975)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Aspiring set designer Tod Hackett (William Atherton) moves to glitzy Hollywood in the 1930s and takes a romantic interest in his new neighbor, Faye Greener (Karen Black), a talentless actress who lives with her sickly, drunken father Harry (Burgess Meredith), a onetime vaudevillian. Dreaming big despite her chronic failure at auditions, Faye flirts with Tod but opts to move in with a lonely, repressed accountant amusingly named Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland). Little by little, Tod finds himself immersed in a sleazy, corrosive world of cruelty, false hope, and malignant desperation.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A blistering adaptation of Nathanael West’s novel, “Locust” might be the most audaciously cynical movie ever made about Tinseltown. Peopled with deranged healers, petulant dwarves, painted child stars, and washed-up never-weres, Schlesinger’s film creates a stark divide between the pampered starlets and studio bosses of La La Land and the impoverished hangers-on and wannabes whose crushed desires fuel their fortunes. Black, Sutherland, and Meredith are mesmerizing in their respective roles, playing fringe types with utmost authenticity. By the time the film’s cathartic, apocalyptic finale arrives to resolve all the dramatic and sexual tension, Hollywood has already begun to look more like hell than any place on earth.


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  • August 31, 2009

    Julianne Moore’s Peaks

    by John Farr

    Who knew that a bit part in The Fugitive would lead to such a prolific and polished silver screen career?


    Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Director Louis Malle’s swan-song takes us inside a run-down New York theater for a reading of Andre Gregory’s upcoming presentation of “Uncle Vanya”. The cast, featuring Wallace Shawn (Vanya), Julianne Moore (Yelena), Larry Pine (Dr. Astrov), Brooke Smith (Sonya) and George Gaynes (Serybryakov) proceed to enact, in their shirtsleeves, Chekhov’s brooding tale of jealousy and isolation, with pauses for coffee-breaks between acts.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Pared down, offbeat approach to rendering of Chekhov may inflame purists, but actually makes the playwright’s dark, depressing work more accessible. We get the full treatment, with no flubbed lines or distractions to break the dramatic tension of the piece. And though Shawn and Moore may not be ideal casting, they turn in holding performances which transport us to that bleak, far-away time in rural Russia. A daring and intelligent piece of work from the late Malle, which takes us behind the velvet curtain to view at close quarters the practice and discipline of acting.


    Boogie Nights (1997)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    At a disco one night in the 1970s, adult-movie impresario Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) spots handsome busboy Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), and invites him for a casting call. Almost overnight, Eddie – a good-natured, slightly dim kid from a broken home who believes he has “something special” to share with the world – changes his name to Dirk Diggler and becomes a porn star, with all the perks and dangers such a lifestyle entails.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Loosely based on the life of ’70s erotic-film stud John Holmes, Anderson’s surprisingly human second feature is an Altmanesque blend of wistful humor and naturalistic ensemble acting. Dirk quickly discovers his “real” family in the cozy, coke-fueled decadence of Horner’s misfit milieu, where he’s nurtured by maternal porn actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), and befriended by numerous quirky types played by a who’s who of ’90s A-listers: Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy. An offbeat gem, with a tongue-in-cheek “money shot” that’ll make your jaw drop.


    Magnolia (1999)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In the San Fernando Valley, a male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) caring for a dying media titan (Jason Robards) tries to contact macho sex guru T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) to tell him about his estranged father’s fading condition. Meanwhile, an ailing TV quiz-show host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), hopes to reconnect with his drugged-out daughter (Melora Walters), who’s being courted by a tender-hearted cop (John C. Reilly) in this sprawling drama of intersecting lives and fortunes.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Anderson’s magnum opus is an ensemble film like none we’ve seen since the heyday of Altman, clearly the young writer-director’s inspiration. Each member of the impressive cast, including Julianne Moore as a pill-popping wife and William H. Macy as a grown-up child celebrity, bring an angst-filled depth to the themes of personal and familial dysfunction that have defined Anderson’s work since “Boogie Nights.” Plus, playing a misogynistic motivational speaker, Tom Cruise registers with one of his most powerful performances ever. “Magnolia” is a revelatory, emotionally cathartic film full of energy and a robust enthusiasm for cinema. Despite a final, overwrought “plague” sequence which blunts its overall impact, this film remains a breathtaking psychological drama, full of twists, turns, and sing-songy surprises.


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  • August 24, 2009

    Other Orson

    by John Farr

    Citizen Kane casts the longest shadow, but Orson Welles’ other work proves his genius:


    The Stranger (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unbeknownst to his comely young bride Mary (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!


    The Third Man (1949)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to the rubble of Post World War II Vienna to unravel the mysterious demise of old friend Harry Lyme (Orson Welles). He starts with few clues, and the little information he can gather from various sources simply doesn’t hang together. In this treacherous world of deception and black marketeering, Holly perserveres, aided by a police inspector (Trevor Howard) who’d also like answers. Is Harry Lyme really dead, and if not, why fake his own death?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the all-time great mysteries, the excellence of this production is reflected in the talents of its key contributors: old Mercury Theatre colleagues Welles and Cotten, screenwriter Graham Greene, producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, and director Carol Reed. Together, they create an intricate thriller, with corrupted souls inhabiting a decimated city like so many vultures. One of the best uses of music in all film, with Anton Karas’s original zither score adding to the bizarre, ominous proceedings.Stunningly shot on location, this is a must.


    Touch Of Evil (1958)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Orson Welles’s late noir entry starts with a suspicious killing in a seedy border town, pitting honest Mexican investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) against bigoted, corrupt American cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan, who claims jurisdiction, has no intention of probing into the mystery, quickly finding a young Mexican to serve as scapegoat. Vargas senses a cover-up and begins snooping on his own, placing him and his wife Susie (Vivian Leigh) in jeopardy. Will Mike and his bride live long enough to unravel the conspiracy?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The director’s original version is restored for this DVD, to powerful effect. Welles creates a desolate night-time world in the dirty town of Los Robles, a forgotten speck on the map where everyone seems to carry a nasty secret. Lurid, almost surreal atmosphere is complemented by uniformly first-rate performances, with Heston and Leigh never better, Welles himself a bloated symbol of moral decay, and Akim Tamiroff memorably slimy as a local crime boss. Don’t miss Marlene Dietrich playing a gypsy- as you might guess, she gets the final word. A cult movie with a capital “C”.


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  • August 24, 2009

    More Sam Shepard

    by John Farr

    Get your Sam Shepard fix from these recommendations:


    Days of Heaven (1978)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After fatally injuring his boss in a fit of rage, Chicago steelworker Bill (Richard Gere) flees to Texas in 1916 with girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister, Linda (Linda Manz), where the three find work laboring with other migrants in the lush wheat fields of a lonely, ailing landowner (Sam Shepard). When the handsome farmer falls for Abby, who’s posing as Bill’s other sister, Bill devises a simple, deceitful plan to lift them out of destitution.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Hailed for his poetic debut “Badlands,” Malick returned five years later with a film every bit as innovative and dreamlike. As adversaries in love with the same woman, the male leads are outstanding, with Gere’s intensity blazing from his eyes and Shepard’s brooding, wary farmer matching him for sheer charisma. Narrated by Bill’s jaded, uneducated sibling, Malick’s film employs an elliptical storytelling technique, but is filled with so many arresting images of pastoral beauty that you never care. With a harrowing, cathartic sequence involving a plague of insects, “Heaven” is a cinematic masterpiece of Southern gothic romance.


    The Right Stuff (1983)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After pilot Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shepard) conquers psychological demons to break the sound barrier in 1947, N.A.S.A. recruits the hardiest group of fearless pilots it can find to spearhead its space-race program. Ill-fated Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) and squeaky clean John Glenn (Ed Harris) are the first to attempt an orbit of the Earth, but not without danger and dire frustrations, both at home and in the eyes of the public, as the Russians edge closer to the same goal. Eventually, four men, including wild-at-heart flyboy Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), are selected for the Mercury program and groomed for success.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from the book by Tom Wolfe, this dynamic, three-hour history lesson recounts the formation of America’s space program through the stories of the daredevils recruited to do the impossible, and “punch a hole in the sky.” Apart from assembling a top-grade cast (Quaid and Harris are marvelous in breakout roles), Kaufman melds testosterone-fueled adventure with poignant family drama, sci-fi with broad All-American slapstick, even nodding to John Ford Westerns in staging cowboy pilot Chuck Yaeger’s breaking of the sound barrier in the California desert. “The Right Stuff” soars as it tracks seven unlikely heroes on a thrilling journey into a brand new era: the Space Age.


    This So-Called Disaster (2003)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This intriguing film provides an astonishingly intimate glimpse into the intense rehearsals leading up to the 2000 San Francisco production of “The Late Henry Moss,” a play written and directed by Sam Shepard, based partly on the author’s recollections of his own alcoholic father. From initial readings to opening night, we follow the stellar cast, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin, through a remarkable process of preparation.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “Moss” is a dark, demanding piece, so the rehearsals director Michael Almereyda respectfully captures in “Disaster” are draining for all concerned. What transfixed this fly on the wall was how directors and actors adopt their own language in rehearsing a play–one virtually unintelligible to the layman, but to trained professionals, a pure dialect pinpointing emotion and motivation. “Disaster” is an absolute must for anyone interested in the inner workings of acting and the theatre.


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