REEL 13
Best Movies by Farr
  • November 9, 2010

    Great Greta

    by John Farr

    John Farr investigates the mysterious Greta Garbo in three of her best roles.


    Grand Hotel (1932)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Stars Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and John and Lionel Barrymore play out several interwoven stories, mixing intrigue, 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, who meet under most unusual circumstances. Brother Lionel is also memorable as a timid, terminally ill clerk on his last sprees. Grand Hotel was among the first MGM sound dramas to showcase two things: first, the studios’ undeniable flair for adapting serious literary material to motion pictures; and second, its unparalleled ability to attract and retain star talent. The movie still dazzles nearly seventy-five years after its release.


    Anna Karenina (1935)

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    Caught in a loveless marriage to the cold, formal Karenin (Rathbone), the stunning Anna Karenina (Greta Garbo) is in a vulnerable state as she travels by train to Moscow to visit her brother’s family. There, she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Freidric March), a career officer, who immediately falls for her. Fighting her feelings, she returns to St. Petersburg, but Vronsky, undeterred, catches the same train. Anna soon realizes this sudden, obsessive love may cause her to lose everything, including her beloved little boy, Sergei (Freddie Bartholemew), but she seems powerless to control her feelings.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Leo Tolstoy’s epic romance, though significantly condensed, makes a fitting subject for this glossy, glamorous MGM film adaptation. Garbo, the studio’s biggest female star at the time, is perfectly suited to play the tragic heroine (in fact, this was a re-make of 1927’s “Love”, in which she essayed the same role opposite John Gilbert). Eight years later, with sound thrown in, she is only more mesmerizing. Sporting a pencil moustache, March assumes the Vronsky role with conviction and the requisite ardor, while Rathbone scores in a steely turn as the wronged husband. If you’re looking for a living example of what the top studio in Hollywood could produce during its Golden Age, check out the literate and sumptuous “Anna Karenina”.


    Camille (1936)

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    In 1847 France, Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) is one of Paris’s most sought-after courtesans. On the night she is to be introduced to the fabulously rich Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), she has an encounter with Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), a courtly, lovestruck lawyer from the provinces who promises he will love her till the day he dies. The free-spirited Gautier, ailing from a weak heart, becomes Varville’s lover and the recipient of his monetary favors, but Armand is persistent. Will he gain Marguerite’s pledge of eternal love?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, the tragic, oft-told love story of the Lady of the Camellias here gets the grand treatment from Cukor, MGM, and the resplendent Garbo – whose face, as always, seems lit with white gold by cameraman William Daniels. Taylor is solid and impossibly handsome as the starry-eyed suitor who pines for, wins, then loses the woman of his dreams, and Daniell downright odious as the wealthy baron, especially in a scene where he is pounding a high-spirited tune on the piano in a fit of barely suppressed rage. Scene-stealer Barrymore has a brief but important role as Armand’s father, and Laura Hope Crewes excels as Marguerite’s mercenary elder friend, Prudence. With splendid acting, brilliant direction, and lush production values, “Camille” will win your heart.


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  • November 2, 2010

    Steinbeck on Screen

    by John Farr

    John Steinbeck involved himself in some pretty interesting collaborations with the best filmmakers of his time. Here are three of John Farr’s favorites.


    The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Triumphant film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s book, tells story of the Joad family, farming Okies who lose everything in the infamous Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. They are forced to pack their meager possessions in a jalopy and drive west to California in a desperate search for a second chance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Directed by the brilliant John Ford, this movie is pure cinematic poetry, with Henry Fonda giving the performance of his career as Tom Joad and actress Jane Darwell winning an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Tom’s beleaguered mother. It is a movie that speaks to the indomitable nature of the human spirit.


    Lifeboat (1944)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    In the Second War, an American vessel carrying civilians is sunk by a German U-boat, but not before the U-Boat is destroyed by return fire. An unlikely group of survivors end up in a single lifeboat, including war correspondent Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), engine room mate John Kovac (John Hodiak), business tycoon Charles “Ritt” Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), and sailors Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn) and Gus Smith (William Bendix). Most intriguing, however, is the presence of a refugee from the U-boat named Willy (Walter Slezak), who speaks no English and inspires heated controversy. Will this colorful group survive until they’re rescued, or kill each other off while waiting?

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    “Lifeboat” delivers an intense, provocative take on human nature stretched to its breaking point, as the water-logged group is forced to confront a tricky question: When the Nazi who sunk your ship wants space in your lifeboat, do you play by the rules of the jungle, or the Geneva Convention? An ingenious, unusual entry in the Hitchcock oeuvre, just watch how the Master handles the challenge of doing his trademark cameo. Bendix and Bankhead (in a rare film role) stand out in a stellar ensemble cast.


    East of Eden (1955)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    “Eden” is the age-old, redemptive story of Cain and Abel, updated to 1917 Monterey, originating via the pen of writer John Steinbeck (best-known for “The Grapes Of Wrath”). In his first starring film role, the iconic Dean plays “bad” son Cal, who aches for the love and approval of his upright, uptight father, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey). Harris plays Abra, the love interest of “favored” brother, Aron (Richard Davalos). Ultimately, she becomes romantically torn between the two brothers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Another ‘50s Kazan landmark, “Eden” boasts vibrant color and atmosphere, top-flight performances and a dazzling screenplay adapted from the Steinbeck novel by Paul Osborn. Oscar-nominated Dean, Harris, Ives and Oscar-winner Van Fleet (as Cal’s reclusive, disreputable mother) all comprise a stellar ensemble. Don’t pass this classic by.


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  • October 13, 2010

    Later Jack

    by John Farr

    Tim Burton’s Batman stars Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader, but Jack Nicholson steals the film. Here are three more Nicholson standouts from later in his career.


    A Few Good Men (1992)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Assigned to defend two Marines accused of murder at Guantanamo Bay, pampered, insouciant Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) thinks he’s dealing with an open-and-shut case, and strikes a plea bargain with prosecutor Capt. Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon). But Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway (Moore), brought in to assist the sharp but inexperienced Kaffee, points out discrepancies in the testimony and convinces him to pursue the case in court. The more they dig, the more secrets they uncover, leading them right up the ladder of top Navy brass.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    This engrossing military-legal thriller from director Rob Reiner soars thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s gripping, expertly paced script (based on his hit Broadway play) and a brawny, high-wattage cast: Cruise and Moore make a winning pair of legal eagles, Bacon is commanding as Kaffee’s courtroom nemesis, and Jack Nicholson delivers one of his most indelible performances as Guantanamo Bay’s ranking officer, the arrogant, tough-as-nails Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup, who may or may not know more than he claims. Dealing with illegal hazing, government cover-ups, and the outer limits of military honor, “Men” packs a double-barreled wallop. Can you handle the truth?


    As Good As It Gets (1997)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is an obsessive-compulsive neurotic with no friends, who ironically makes his living as a successful romance novelist. Melvin is forced to come out of his shell when gay neighbor Simon is injured and Melvin must care for his dog. Then there is Melvin’s growing attachment to the waitress who works at the diner he frequents. Carol (Helen Hunt) can handle Melvin (a major achievement), but she has a lot more on her plate, including carrying for an asthmatic son. Is this a scenario where love could blossom? You’d be surprised.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    James L. Brooks’s quirky, touching film brims with humanity, as three societal misfits find each other and against steep odds, ultimately connect. Nicholson fits oddball Melvin like a defective glove, but it’s Oscar winner Helen Hunt who steals the film as the beleaguered, world-weary Carol. An unlikely romance with a big heart, this gem truly lives up to its title.


    About Schmidt (2002)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    After a long career of dutiful service to an Omaha insurance company, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) retires and finds himself trapped in a meaningless existence with nothing much to look forward to. When his wife Helen (June Squibb) dies suddenly, Schmidt decides his own days may be few, so he packs up a whale-size Winnebago and sets out for Denver, where he hopes to convince daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) not to marry dim-witted salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney).

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    This indelible dramedy by the director of “Sideways” examines regret, loss, and melancholic self-awareness. Nicholson gives a brave, brilliant performance as Schmidt, a decidedly unglamorous, ordinary man disappointed in his life, his marriage, and his daughter, achieving a late-career high. Mulroney, Davis, and the formidable Kathy Bates – playing Randall’s randy mother – all provide exceptional support, but this movie really belongs to Jack, who brings ingenuous warmth and heartbreaking honesty to his role. Based on Louis Begley’s novel, “Schmidt” strikes just the right balance between despair and hopefulness, poignant tragedy and hilarious hijinks.


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  • October 5, 2010

    Deep Depp

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp cult hit, Edward Scissorhands. Here’s a look, courtesy John Farr, at three of Johnny Depp’s unheralded leading performances.


    What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In small-town Endora, young Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is the de facto household head, caring for his retarded brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), endlessly mortified teen sister, Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), and 500-lb. widowed mother (Darlene Cates), who hasn’t left the house since Gilbert’s dad hanged himself. Gilbert constantly negotiates a flurry of demands without fail, but when a well-traveled gal named Becky (Juliette Lewis) rolls into town with her grandmother, Gilbert gets his first taste of freedom.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted by Peter Hedges from his novel, Hallstrom’s endearing, offbeat drama features soulful heartthrob Depp as a fatherless young man with lots of worries and little time for his own happiness. Oscar nominee DiCaprio gives a remarkably tender performance as Arnie, a mentally challenged kid who’s difficult to deal with but impossible not to love. Hallstrom develops the quirkier aspects of Hedges’s story-including Gilbert’s involvement with a lonely wife and a worldly newcomer-with a light comic touch. Excellent support from Lewis, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, and nonactress Cates kicks things up a notch. Beneath its unusual skin, this “Grape” is quite sweet.


    Ed Wood (1994)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fledgling LA director Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) has a perverse passion for putting on god-awful plays featuring a company of outcasts and nobodies – like transvestite-to-be Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray) and Ed’s tolerant girlfriend, Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker). Undaunted by failure, Wood – a secret cross-dresser himsel f -finally gets a shot at directing a low-budget film for B-movie producer George Weiss (Mike Starr). But Wood’s biggest boost comes when he meets and befriends his idol, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), now an aging, drug-addicted has-been.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This suitably quirky, beautifully acted homage to real-life B-movie hack Ed Wood, creator of “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and other bizarre turkeys, could have played the facts of his strange life strictly for laughs. Instead, Burton portrays this oddball visionary with extraordinary warmth and kindred sympathy, in effect honoring the outlandishly awful movies he made. Depp is marvelous in the lead role, giving Wood a bit of mad naivete as he fumbles his way through Hollywood’s lower depths. And Landau’s crabby performance as the ailing, morphine-addled Lugosi won him an Oscar. Filmed in glorious black-and-white, “Ed Wood” is a droll, endearing tribute to an artless wonder.


    Finding Neverland (2004)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Married Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), meets a widow, Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), with four young boys he becomes very attached to, and is inspired to write “Peter Pan,” an ode to everlasting youth that would become a children’s classic. But Barrie’s efforts to produce the play at the Duke of York’s theater in London are fraught with difficulty, even as his love for the Davies clan continues to grow.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Man-child Depp is perfectly cast in this endearing biopic about Barrie’s relationship with the family who inspired his greatest and most beloved work, and his comely co-star, Kate Winslet, fits the bill just as nicely. Depp has always taken eccentric roles, but here he plays the real-life writer with authentic human warmth. Forster allows us to see the world as Barrie does, depicting not just the emotional pangs (grief and the passing of loved ones is a theme in his life) but the flights of fancy soaring in his imagination, and the effect is charming. See this one with the kids, or just for your own enchantment.


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  • September 28, 2010

    Killer Cruise

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs the Tom Cruise classic, Rain Man. And just in case you can’t get enough of Tom, John Farr recommends three of his favorite Cruise vehicles.


    Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This riveting biopic of Vietnam protester Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) opens with his all-American upbringing in Massapequa, NY, and entry into the war as a deeply patriotic enlisted man. Later, Kovic returns home disillusioned and psychologically scarred from a bullet wound that’s left him paralyzed from the waist down. Alienated and adrift in Mexico, the hard-drinking vet eventually begins to pull his life together, devoting his energies to anti-war activism.
    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Helmed by “Platoon” director and Vietnam vet Stone, “Born” is a profoundly moving portrait of a macho athlete whose horrific battle experience causes him to reassess his politics and reorient his give-’em-hell attitude. Cruise, in an ambitious turn away from heartthrob roles, plays Kovic with precision and conviction, especially at his darkest moments, delivering the finest work of his career. Co-written by Stone and Kovic, “Born” reflects the pain and anger felt by an entire generation of returning US soldiers, and will leave a lasting impression.


    Jerry Maguire (1996)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) is a sports-agent who’s seen better days. Undermined and outflanked by ruthless colleague Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr), Jerry goes solo, with a solo client: pro footballer Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who believes he needs his head examined, and whose mantra to Jerry seems unending: “Show me the money!” Just when things seem at their bleakest, Jerry meets Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellwegger) and her young son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki). Once Dorothy becomes Jerry’s assistant, things begin to look up on all fronts, and we have the makings of an authentic David Versus Goliath story.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Cameron Crowe’s directorial breakthrough (he also scripted) is an infectious comedy-romance buoyed by a star-making turn from Zellwegger, and an Oscar-winning comic performance from Gooding. Young Lipnicki is pretty appealing too, and all provide Cruise with plenty of opportunities to shine. Razor-sharp yet very human satire ends up really warming the heart.


    Magnolia (1999)

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    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, 2010

    Special Spencer

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs the Spencer Tracy classic, Father’s Little Dividend. To mark the occasion, John Farr suggests a trio of pictures from his all-time favorite screen actor, the very special Spencer Tracy.


    Libeled Lady (1936)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The ever-smooth Powell plays Bill Chandler, a freelance journalist hired by his old newspaper to squelch a libel suit brought by society heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). To do this, Bill must make Connie fall in love with him and then place her in a compromising position. Ultimately, he melts her icy exterior, but ends up falling in love himself. What’s a smitten newspaperman to do?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1936, Jack Conway’s underexposed screwball comedy is a raucous farce buzzing with zany humor, thanks to a flurry of impeccable one-liners delivered by Powell and Loy, reunited from their pairing in “The Thin Man.” Playing Haggerty, the newspaper’s frantic editor, and Gladys, his continually jilted fiancée, Tracy and Harlow round out a stellar foursome in this fast-paced, ingenious laugh-fest.


    Woman of the Year (1942)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Two columnists on the same newspaper–Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn), a female world-affairs commentator, and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), a down-to-earth sportswriter-start a feud in print over the pointlessness of sports, but fall in love after Sam takes Tess to her first baseball game. This leads to a blissful walk down the aisle, but both soon find that married life together involves responsibilities which are at odds with their other priorities.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This is romance cinema at its best, exposing with subtlety and humor the phenomenon of two people, opposites in every respect, falling head over heels for each other. The issue then becomes figuring out how to make it work. Watching the picture today, it’s no surprise that Tracy, a gruff, blocky Irish Midwesterner, and Hepburn, a refined, patrician New England beauty, started their famous romance on this movie. Their differences create their unique chemistry and we can’t help but fall in love with them.


    Inherit the Wind (1960)

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    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.


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  • August 17, 2010

    Late Kate

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs the Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn classic, Bringing Up Baby. To mark the occasion, John Farr suggests a trio of late, great Katharine Hepburn pictures.


    Adam’s Rib (1949)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), an otherwise happily married pair of lawyers, find their relationship sorely tested when they end up opposing each other in court in an attempted murder case involving another husband (Tom Ewell) and wife (Judy Holliday, in her debut).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    George Cukor’s “Rib” may just be the ultimate battle of the sexes comedy, waged both in and out of the courtroom. Perhaps Tracy and Hepburn’s best overall film, their on-screen chemistry was never more effective than here. The script by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon is razor sharp and supporting performances from newcomers Ewell, Holliday and David Wayne are uniformly inspired. Judy’s turn as a wronged wife put her career in overdrive.


    The African Queen (1951)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Coarse-tongued, boozy steamer captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a supplier of trade goods to East African villages during WWI, offers to take prim, imperious Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) back to civilization after her husband, a British missionary, dies during a German attack. Charlie and Rose have an oil-and-water rapport, but over the ensuing days, as they face a gauntlet of perils on the arduous journey home, their mutual hostility softens and then turns much sweeter.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scripted by James Agee, Huston’s hugely entertaining “African Queen” pairs a grizzled Bogart with the lovably straitlaced and ever-haughty Hepburn for a bumpy ride down a treacherous river, where a German gunboat is lurking, along with leeches, rapids, and (surprise!) romance. According to Hepburn’s memoir (and several books), it was a hell of a shoot for everyone concerned, but DP John Cardiff managed to render the humid environs of East Africa in majestic, eye-popping Technicolor. Sterling performances by Hepburn and Bogart (who nabbed the Oscar for his turn as the cantankerous river rat) are the best reason to revisit “African Queen,” though. Opposites attract!


    Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Set during one long summer day in 1912, this film focuses on the Tyrones, a family that has seen better days. James (Ralph Richardson),once a fine Shakespearean actor, has emptily played the same offstage role for years, while eldest son Jamie (Jason Robards), a failure on the boards, drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Budding writer Edmund (Dean Stockwell) is recovering from TB, and mother Mary (Katharine Hepburn), recently released from an institution, is slowly losing her grip on reality to the ravages of drug-addiction. As the day wears on, resentments surface-and ultimately consume-this tragic clan.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Sidney Lumet’s slow-burning adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play depicts a theatrical family’s slow disintegration with haunting precision. Ralph Richardson is ideally cast as the fading family patriarch, while both Robards and Stockwell (O’Neill’s proxy) are superb as the two sons, each consumed by their own afflictions. Hepburn executes a tour-de-force as the fragile, brain-addled Mary Tyrone, a spectral symbol of the family’s decay from within. Lumet wisely sticks to the letter of the play, and the results are unforgettable.


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  • August 10, 2010

    Vintage Coop

    by John Farr

    This week, Reel 13 airs the Gary Cooper classic, Meet John Doe. To mark the occasion, John Farr suggests a trio of classic Cooper vehicles.


    Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Simple country boy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits an immense fortune from a wealthy distant relative he doesn’t even know, and must then navigate a sea of handlers and hand-out requests to make sense of his new life as multi-millionaire. But those who think they can manipulate this tuba-playing rube are soon in for a rude awakening.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Quintessential Capra charmer is one of Cooper’s most appealing comic forays, as his plain-talking homespun personification of rural America out-foxes all those smug and greedy city-slickers. Arthur is also terrific as Babe Bennett, the hard-nosed lady journalist who first ridicules, then falls for Longfellow, much to her own surprise. One of the screen’s authentic classics, this is pixilated comedy at its very best. Beware the Sandler re-make.


    Sergeant York (1941)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Incredible but true story concerns wild, hard-drinking Tennessee country farmer and crack shot Alvin York (Gary Cooper), who finally gets religion through a freak accident. When called to serve in the First War, his faith tells him to become a conscientious objector, but ultimately Alvin is forced to go overseas to fight. There, his marksmanship and gallantry help him kill, wound or capture over 100 German soldiers virtually single-handedly, making him the most famous and decorated enlisted man in the army.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Hawks’s timely patriotic biopic of this virtually forgotten hero provided Cooper with another seminal role (he won the Oscar, beating out Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”, among others), and helped to prepare our nation for the next impending world conflict. Prolific character actor Brennan (Oscar-nominated as well) excels as Alvin’s plain-spoken pastor, and ingénue Leslie makes an adorable love interest. A truly amazing story, unfolding on-screen with Hawks’s customary subtlety and skill. Don’t forget to salute this Sergeant.


    Friendly Persuasion (1956)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) and his minister wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) are happily raising their three children in the pacifist, hospitable ways of the Quaker faith. But as the Civil War looms close to home, their eldest son, Josh (Anthony Perkins), joins the Home Guard to defend their community against Rebel raiders, forcing them to examine their faith and conscience.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on the popular novel by Jessamyn West, “Persuasion” is a sensitive portrayal of Quaker lifeways with flashes of merry humor, especially around Jess, who can’t resist racing a neighbor’s buggy or the allure of a new pump organ – both frowned upon by his stoic religion. Blacklister Michael Wilson’s progressive-minded script doesn’t shy from weighing militarism against Christian love, and Wyler’s solid direction of stars Cooper and McGuire makes their love for each other seem unfailingly genuine. Future “Psycho” star Perkins is also excellent as the gangly, intense teen who joins the Union defenders against his parents’ wishes. For a quaint, incisive look at old-time Quaker life, try a bit of “Friendly Persuasion.”


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  • July 27, 2010

    Poisonous Pictures

    by John Farr

    John Farr ponders poisonous pictures to play after this week’s Reel 13 Classic, Arsenic and Old Lace.


    The Court Jester (1956)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In merrie old medieval England, an obscure entertainer named Hawkins (Danny Kaye) ends up masquerading as the King’s new jester, and in this influential position, finds himself mixed up in the intrigues of one Sir Ravenheart (Basil Rathbone), a trusted court adviser who has designs on the throne. The plot only gets more comically intricate from there, but who cares when you’re laughing so hard?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The irrepressible Danny Kaye was gifted comic actor who not only touched and entertained millions of children, but at his best, brought out the child in all of us. A hilarious spoof on the swashbuckler picture, “Jester” is widely regarded as his finest hour on-screen. Rathbone does his usual villainous turn to perfection, and the young Johns makes a bewitching love interest. And who can forget that justifiably famous “Vessel with the Pestle” routine? With lots of color, action and excitement framing. A hilarious spoof on the swashbuckler picture, “The Court Jester” is widely regarded as his finest screen hour. With lots of color, action and excitement framing the immortal gags, this is family entertainment at its best.


    Romeo and Juliet (1968)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Shot on location in Verona, Italy, this vivid, unconventional retelling of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy is the story of two young people, Romeo and Juliet (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey), who discover a powerful love for each other, but whose union is rendered impossible by a bitter, long-running feud between their two families.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    My favorite version of this oft-filmed classic is Zeffirelli’s Oscar-nominated version. Starring two unknowns in the title roles (17-year-old Whiting and 15-year-old Hussey), the movie remains true to Shakespeare, while making the language more accessible to modern audiences. Both Michael York (as Romeo’s nemesis, Tybalt) and Milo O’Shea (as Mercutio) lend strong support, while Zeffirelli’s unabashed romanticism is enhanced by magnificent period detail and a sweeping score from Nino Rota. The story of youthful rebellion also spoke to basic issues arising in the restive sixties. A top-notch rendering of an eternal classic.


    Downfall (2004)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This shattering entry chronicles the last days of World War II in a shattered and encircled Berlin, from the vantage point of the ever-tightening circle around a broken down, delusional Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz). Seen mainly through the eyes of his young secretary Traudl Junge (Maria Lara), the film faithfully recreates events leading to Germany’s unconditional surrender, while painting a vivid character study of Hitler and his small but faithful retinue. A palpable sense of dread and claustrophobia builds throughout the film, as the day of reckoning approaches when the once proud Fuhrer must admit to the utter failure of his twisted vision.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The film’s intense yet intimate portrayal of Hitler’s demise has the crazy, nightmarish feel of a Bosch painting, with a pervasive sense of unreality. Ganz renders Hitler so expertly that the effect is spooky, as if the dead had been brought back to life. Other searing performances come from Juliane Kohler as a curiously cheery, detached Eva Braun, and both Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch make your blood run cold playing the twisted, ever loyal Josef and Magda Goebbels. Finally, the delicate, wide-eyed Lara beguiles as Traudl, a mostly innocent lamb placed by fate right in the center of the wolf’s lair. “Downfall” was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and with good reason.


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  • July 20, 2010

    Not-to-Miss Noir

    by John Farr

    John Farr ventures into darkness with three gritty noirs you may have overlooked.


    Raw Deal (1948)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Framed for a crime he didn’t commit by mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), tough-talking gangster Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) breaks out of prison with the help of his gutsy gal, Pat (Claire Trevor). Needing a hostage in case the cops manage to track him down, Joe kidnaps his kindly social worker, Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), and sets off to seek revenge on Coyle and his men.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This hard-as-nails potboiler was made for pennies at a Poverty Row studio by Mann and his legendary cinematographer, John Alton. Like the very best films in this genre, there’s plenty of raw dialogue, heart-fluttering suspense, and a square-jawed tough guy who isn’t afraid to blast away at his nemeses. But the sizzling love triangle that develops between Joe, Pat, and Ann is a perversely clever plot twist that contributes much to the fatalistic tone, with Trevor’s cold-hearted voiceover to top it all off. Burr’s turn as the brutal Coyle (watch out for that fruit flambeé!) is especially nasty. If you’re in the market for a visceral thriller, put your money on “Raw Deal.”


    The Narrow Margin (1952)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Tough-talking LA detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) arrives in Chicago to escort a cynical mobster’s wife (Marie Windsor) to a California grand jury, where she plans to testify against her estranged husband. The mafia has other plans for Mrs. Neall-namely, to rub her out. After his partner is gunned down leaving Neall’s apartment, Brown is on high alert, and must outwit a team of gangsters who follow them onto a sleeper train but seem to have no idea what their female target looks like.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A smart, edge-of-your-seat thriller set almost entirely on a West Coast-bound train, “Margin” captivates thanks to its many sudden plot twists and ingenious central tension: Brown doesn’t know which of the men on-board is a gangster, and the hit men don’t know which of the female passengers to bump off. McGraw’s gritty, hardboiled cop and Windsor’s catty moll play off each other extremely well, and portly actor Paul Maxey adds a bit of mystique as an irritating, perhaps devious passenger. Snappy dialogue, crisp pacing, and even-handed direction keep Fleischer’s “Margin” flying like a bullet. Infinitely better than the 1990 remake.


    Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a female hitch-hiker in trouble one night, eventually loses her, and when she winds up dead, resolves to investigate. The twisty trail eventually leads him to an oily gangster (Paul Stewart) and a duplicitous scientist (Albert Dekker). The trail of mysteries eventually leads to the contents of a stolen box which Hammer’s secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) describes as “The Great Whatsit.” All bets are off as the film builds to its climax.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Aldrich comes close to noir perfection with “Kiss Me Deadly”, transferring the pulp flavor of Mickey Spillane’s books to the screen. Spillane’s battered hero represents the true noir protagonist, devoid of pretension or romance, and Meeker is ideally suited for the role. Hammer’s fundamental concern is his own-and his client’s-survival, and there’s plenty to be concerned about. Ahead of its time when released, “Deadly” is a tense, thrilling masterpiece of Cold War paranoia paranoia. (Watch closely for a young Cloris Leachman in her film debut.)


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  • July 12, 2010

    Honoring Anthony

    by John Farr

    John Farr reviews three oft-overlooked Anthony Hopkins performances.


    The Elephant Man (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Hideously deformed by a rare disease, John Merrick (John Hurt) makes a meager living in Victorian England as a circus sideshow freak, but is routinely mistreated by his cruel employer. Rescued from this despairing existence by Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a caring, highly respected doctor fascinated with his condition, the kindly, soft-spoken Merrick reveals himself to be a person of acute intelligence. Viewed as a curiosity by outsiders, he attempts to live with dignity in spite of his debilitating, horrific appearance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Filmed in eerie black and white by “Blue Velvet” director David Lynch, this dour, heartbreaking drama about the real-life Merrick, known as “the Elephant Man,” perfectly captures the gloomy, gothic atmosphere of late-19th-century England. But it also relates a deeply compassionate story, with Hurt delivering a pained, Oscar-nominated performance through all the heavy make-up, and an understated Hopkins equally sensitive as Dr. Treves. With an excellent supporting cast including John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, and Wendy Hiller, “The Elephant Man” is a haunting tale that asks how we define humanity.


    The Remains of the Day (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In 1930s Britain, “perfect” butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is hired to serve in the household of Lord Darlington (James Fox), a stuffy, arrogant man of means, alongside his frail, ailing butler father (Peter Vaughan) and new housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). Stevens is so dedicated in his service and removed from the world of human emotion that he refuses to cope with his father’s grave illness-or acknowledge his budding feelings for Miss Kenton. Meanwhile, the winds of war are blowing, and the callow Darlington appears to be throwing in his chips with the Nazis.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “Remains” is a refined, elegantly crafted study of loss, regret, and the costs of emotional repression. Hopkins is masterful as Stevens, a man hiding behind an unswervingly dedicated, almost pathologically formal veneer. And the ever-charming Thompson is an excellent foil, attempting to draw Stevens out of his fortress of unfeeling. Lovingly handled by the Merchant-Ivory team, with exquisite period detail and coolly expressive cinematography, “Remains” is a cinematic gem of exceedingly good taste.


    The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    New Zealand native Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) has had a passion for motorcycles-and all fast-accelerating machines-since childhood. Tinkering endlessly with a 600cc 1920 Indian model for most of his life, the now-retired Munro decides to follow his dream to Bonneville, Utah, where he plans to break the land-speed record on the world-famous salt flats, despite his advanced age and the homemade hackery of his two-wheeled racer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Chewing his role with obvious delight, Hopkins is terrific in Donaldson’s rousing, against-the-odds road movie, which chronicles the real-life exploits of quixotic Kiwi roadster Munro in the ’60s. Initially barred from participating in the Speed Week time trials, the amiably gruff senior finally gets a shot thanks to respected pro driver Jim Moffett (played by Chris Lawford). Donaldson weaves dramatic details of Munro’s journey with plenty of spirited humor and offbeat encounters with boosters, fellow travelers, and even a transvestite motel clerk. Diane Ladd’s widow/love interest and Paul Rodriguez’s car salesman are especially memorable. Get in the driver’s seat with “Indian,” and enjoy the rickety but exhilarating ride.


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  • July 6, 2010

    Courtroom Thrillers

    by John Farr

    John Farr presents a voir dire of must-see courtroom classics.


    Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former prosecutor who’s at a professional turning point. Now out of the district attorney’s office, he’s a defense lawyer, and needs a high-profile assignment to establish himself. He finds it in the case of Lieutenant Fred Mannion (Ben Gazzara), an army officer accused of killing the man who raped Bannion’s sexy wife Laura (Lee Remick). The case grows more complex the deeper Biegler probes, and he’s also up against a ruthless young prosecutor (George C. Scott) intent on winning a conviction at all costs.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Preminger’s crackling courtroom drama makes for a twisty, racy, irresistible film. Stewart is in his element as the dogged Biegler, but junior players Gazzara, Remick and Scott are every bit as good. Gritty atmosphere and a smoky Ellington score (with Duke himself in a rare on-screen appearance) help make this daring, distinctive picture hum.


    The Verdict

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Boston lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a washed-up alcoholic, faces the battle of his life when he decides to pursue a medical malpractice suit against a powerful Catholic hospital on behalf of a young comatose woman’s family. Of course, the case he lands appears impossible to win given his tenuous condition and the array of egal forces against him, led by the shrewd and powerful attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A searing, moody courtroom drama masterfully directed by Sidney Lumet, the film earned five Oscar nominations in 1982, including one for writer David Mamet. As Frank Galvin, Newman shows a rare vulnerability as a man struggling to redeem himself before it’s too late. This film represents both courtroom and human drama at its finest, with veteran player Jack Warden superb as Mickey Morrissey, Galvin’s only remaining colleague and friend.


    A Civil Action (1999)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This fact-based film tells the story of Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta), a personal-injury attorney who pursues a negligence suit against corporate titans W.R Grace and Beatrice Foods. The companies have a joint interest in a leather-production facility in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose illegal dumping of toxic waste may have led to the deaths of several local children. Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the mother of one victim, decides to sue. As Jan immerses himself in this high-stakes battle, he wagers everything he has on a positive outcome, but his opposing counsel, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant, ruthless legal minds around. Is Jan in over his head?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Produced by Robert Redford and based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr, this gripping, literate enviro-action legal drama is the classic David and Goliath story – the little people versus big industry – told with gusto in a decidedly unpredictable fashion. “Action” features a stellar cast, notably John Lithgow as the trial judge, and and an Oscar-nominated Duvall as Facher. William H. Macy also distinguishes himself playing Jan’s understandably anxious accountant. It may sound dry as paper, but this absorbing courtroom drama grabs you by the throat and never lets go.


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