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  • January 27, 2012

    Best Movies by Farr: Have You Seen McQueen?

    by John Farr

    Steve McQueen, star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic “The Thomas Crown Affair” endures as an antihero thirty years after his premature death. John Farr will show you why.


    The Great Escape (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    During World War 2, a team of Allied prisoners in a high security German POW camp work together in a tireless attempt to facilitate a mass escape. Their daring plan is to dig a long underground tunnel which will take them all to the other side of the barbed wire and freedom. This painstaking job will take not only a highly coordinated effort, but a fair amount of time, with a constant risk of failure or exposure. Will these intrepid soldiers make it out of there?

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    This breathless war entry, based on a true story, may just be the finest escape movie ever filmed. Beautifully shot on locations in Europe, director John Sturges reunites several of the cast from his prior triumph, the testosterone-heavy “Magnificent Seven”- notably McQueen (now a much bigger star), James Coburn, and Charles Bronson (as the expert on tunnel digging), and adds in James Garner and Richard Attenborough for good measure. Though the film is long, trust me-you won’t be looking at your watch. If you love war movies, this is top-notch, star-studded entertainment. And check out Steve on that motorcycle!


    Bullitt (1968)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    When hard-nosed Bay Area police detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) launches an inquiry into the murder of a Mob informant under his protection, he is stymied by aspiring politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), head of the Senate subcommittee investigating Mafia corruption. Undaunted, Bullitt pursues the underworld killers with dogged determination.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    A cop film which boasts one of the best car chases ever – an exhilarating, ten-minute romp through the streets of San Francisco that’s rarely been equalled – “Bullitt” is the ultimate McQueen movie (along with “The Great Escape”). The action sequences are taut and nerve-jangling, and the distinctive McQueen persona – reticent, self-reliant, cool under pressure – is fully formed and evoked. Of course, he had one undeniable advantage: he was the coolest movie star of his time, and so both he and “Bullitt” endure. (Note: a young Jacqueline Bisset also makes for a stunning diversion as Bullitt’s love interest.)


    Junior Bonner (1972)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) is a fading rodeo star who re-visits his home turf to participate in the area’s annual event. There, he re-unites with his family: beloved dad Ace (Preston), a charming but irresponsible dreamer; mother Elvira (Lupino), his more grounded, long-suffering mother who (for the most part) is now estranged from Ace; and brother Curly (Baker), a born hustler who’s becoming rich. Junior must see if he still has the stuff to compete, while coming to terms with his tricky family situation.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Sam Peckinpah’s most subtle, gentle movie is a perfect showcase for the mellowing McQueen, who comfortably wears the part of Junior like a pair of old jeans. “Junior” also boasts fabulous late-career turns from Preston, who nearly steals the picture, and Lupino in a bittersweet turn as the resigned Elvira. Flavorful entry features great rodeo atmosphere and some exciting bucking bronco sequences. Given a mixed reception on release, this underrated gem holds up extremely well, and constitutes must-viewing , particularly for McQueen fans.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more reviews of the best movies.

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  • January 19, 2012

    Best Movies by Farr: Cagney the Classic Bad Guy

    by John Farr

    In his day James Cagney became the quintessential movie bad guy. Here are three of his best baddies.


    The Public Enemy (1931)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    This landmark film concerns Tom Powers (James Cagney), a wayward Irish youth from Chicago’s gritty South Side who becomes a big-time mobster during Prohibition, while his stable older brother Mike (Donald Cook) works a low-paying but honest job. As Tom’s dark star soars ever higher in the gangland hierarchy, he and childhood buddy Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) leave a trail of blood in their wake, but ultimately this life of crime exacts its toll on Tom.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Wellman’s “The Public Enemy” launched the film career of a pugnacious Irish-American from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen who started out as a dancer, only to become the toughest tough guy of them all: Jimmy Cagney, never cockier than he is here. Since organized crime was a fairly new and frightening epidemic at the time, Wellman gives “Enemy” the stark feel of a purely cautionary tale. Both the famous grapefruit scene and Tom’s final homecoming still pack a wallop, and a stunning Jean Harlow injects plenty of sex appeal as Tom’s gal Gwen.


    Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, two young hooligans on the make, are caught stealing, and only Jerry gets away. As the years go by, the reform school-hardened Rocky (James Cagney) enters a life of crime, becoming a famous and feared gangster, while Jerry (Pat O’Brien) ultimately sees the light and enters the priesthood. While maintaining affection for each other, criminal and priest must compete for the souls of a new generation of hoodlums in the neighborhood, played by the Dead End Kids.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    “Angels” represents the peak of the gangster picture genre which Warners developed and refined in the thirties, when the age of Capone was still fresh in people’s minds. Cagney, whose screen career had been launched seven years before in “The Public Enemy”, perfects his rendition of the crook with a heart of gold, and his close real-life friend Pat O’Brien counters him perfectly as the mellow, morally upright Father Connolly. Meanwhile Humphrey Bogart, in full villain mode, is deliciously slimy as Rocky’s “business partner”. Whatever you do, don’t miss that ending!


    White Heat (1949)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Film follows twisted path of one Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) a hardened career criminal whose profound mental illness manifests itself in blinding headaches and an intense mother fixation. His psychosis doesn’t hold him back from an aggressive spree of robbing and killing, however. When Cody winds up in jail on a relatively minor charge, the authorities place undercover cop Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) in his cell. Later, when the two are sprung, Hank joins the Jarrett gang, and from the inside, starts to accelerate Cody’s undoing.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Raoul Walsh’s dynamite gangster picture is so much more than a re-tread of the early thirties gangster classics that made Cagney a star. Here we are less concerned with the cat-and-mouse aspects of the story (though they are plenty diverting) and more focused on the progressive mental disintegration of the central character. Cagney is outstanding as Jarrett, a man whose own demons may consume him before the police finish the job. Electrifying stuff, and a Cagney peak.


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  • January 13, 2012

    Best Movies by Farr: Yves Montand Cubed

    by John Farr

    Yves Montand, who stars opposite Ingrid Bergman in this week’s Reel 13 Classic “Goodbye Again” deserves a closer look.


    The Wages of Fear (1953)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Four down-on-their-luck men in a remote South American town are hired for about the most dangerous mission imaginable: dividing into pairs, they must each transport a truckload of highly explosive nitroglycerin across three hundred miles of rugged terrain. A sort of primal, perverse competition ensues, as the two sets of drivers attempt the impossible, knowing that at the next bump in the road, any or all of them could be blown sky-high.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    A gut-wrenching tale from master of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Wages” is also an intense meditation on just how far dispossessed human beings will go for money, if desperate enough. The young Montand is positively magnetic in his first dramatic role as one of the four men. The film won the Grand Prize at Cannes, and actor Vanel, who plays another driver, was also singled out for his work. Fasten your seat belts, and get ready for a tense ride.


    Z (1969)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Minutes before he’s to deliver an anti-nuke speech to a public crowd, pro-democracy scientist Zei (Yves Montand) is brutally attacked by right-wing extremists with close ties to the authoritarian Greek government. His death sparks a scandal, a contentious trial, and the formation of a military coup dedicated to suppressing peaceful protests and the evidence presented by an intrepid photojournalist (Jacques Peppin).

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Based on the real-life assassination of peace activist Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963, Costa-Gavras’s Oscar-winning political thriller stars Jacques Peppin, Greek starlet Irene Papas (as Zei’s wife Helena), and Yves Montand, in one of his most committed and compelling dramatic performances. Sweeping us from the streets of discontent to the corrupt corridors of government power, “Z” is a visceral, nerve-wracking courtroom drama with a visual energy to match its shocking exposé of anti-democratic cover-ups and martial violence. A landmark in world cinema.


    Jean de Florette (1986)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    In 1920s Provence, crafty farmer Cesar (Yves Montand) and his dim-bulb nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) both covet the adjoining land, which holds a spring capable of sustaining a lucrative flower-growing business. Unfortunately, on the death of their old neighbor, one Jean Cadoret (Gerard Depardieu) inherits the acreage, and decides to farm it himself. Greedy and conniving, Cesar commits an act of treachery to which Jean becomes an unwitting victim.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s two-volume novel, Claude Berri’s magnificent “Jean de Florette” (and its sequel, “Manon of the Spring”), center on the bounty we owe to water, comprising two parts of one rich story. The great Yves Montand delivers a memorable, nuanced portrayal of the scheming “Le Papet,” while the equally brilliant Depardieu tugs at the heartstrings as determined hunchback Cadoret, who struggles against impossible odds to make his farm a success . Stunningly picturesque, “Jean” reaches a high watermark for period drama.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more reviews of the best movies.

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  • December 20, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Early Shirley Jones

    by John Farr

    Shirley Jones was a star long before her ‘Partridge Family’ days.


    Oklahoma! (1955)


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

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


    Carousel (1956)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Former carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae) marries the sweet and lovely Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones), a factory worker in a Maine coastal town. Frustrated by his inability to find work as he’s about to become a father, Bigelow makes a misguided attempt to better their circumstances, with tragic results. Ultimately, Billy receives a single shot at redemption for his past sins.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    The score’s the thing in the bittersweet musical “Carousel,” based on yet another Rodgers and Hammerstein play. Though on release the film’s darker themes played less well with audiences than jauntier predecessor “Oklahoma,” time has been kind to this picture. Once again MacRae and Jones make a winning, handsome couple, and their mellifluous voices do full justice to timeless classics like “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”


    Elmer Gantry (1960)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Hiding his dissolute leanings, charismatic street preacher Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) teams up with touring tent revivalist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) to spread the word of God, and before long the two are making money hand over fist. Falconer falls in love with Gantry, and with her new spoils, builds an enormous house of worship by the ocean. But the mercurial minister’s womanizing past is about to revisit them in the person of Lulu (Shirley Jones), a jilted prostitute out for a little payback.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Based on the bestselling novel by Sinclair Lewis, this tale of a lustful, larger-than-life charlatan’s fall from grace owes its strength to the force of Lancaster’s dynamic, Oscar-winning performance. His Gantry preaches hellfire and brimstone, but loves life – and women – with a hearty gusto that is as pure as Sister Falconer’s vanity is unbecoming. Jones also took home an Oscar, playing against type in a sultry turn as a minister’s “fallen” daughter who became Gantry’s lover. Also great is Arthur Kennedy as an atheist journalist modeled on the legendary H.L. Mencken. Fiery and sharp, Richard Brooks’s satirical take on Bible-thumping hypocrisy and hucksterism still speaks volumes in today’s world.


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  • December 15, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Darker Jimmy Stewart

    by John Farr

    Following World War II, James Stewart decided he needed to pursue roles that reflected the darker atmosphere of the Atomic Age. He found them in westerns.


    Winchester ’73 (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Lin McAdam (James Stewart) is roaming the prairies, looking to settle an old score with one Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Unfortunately, when the two meet up, they’re in Marshal Wyatt Earp’s jurisdiction and must surrender their weapons. The two do compete in a shooting contest for a brand-new Winchester ’73 rifle, the finest firearm made. McAdam wins, but through an act of treachery, loses the rifle. McAdam goes after Dutch Henry again, only this time, he wants his rifle back too.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    James Stewart wanted a change from his folksy, everyman roles, and in a risky move, chose a western to give his image a harder edge. Director Anthony Mann and he would collaborate on four more oaters after this outing, which proved a huge success. “Winchester” brought a new complexity of character to the Western form, literally resuscitating a fading genre. This role also revived Stewart’s career by displaying the actor’s impressive range: Stewart’s McAdam is a dark, conflicted, angry fellow, far removed from the Mr. Smiths and Elwood P. Dowds of the world. Film also features sterling support from Dan Duryea, Millard Mitchell, and a comely Shelley Winters as a sweet-natured showgirl. Also look fast for Rock Hudson playing an Indian brave.


    The Naked Spur (1953)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Kansas rancher-turned bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) faces a stubborn obstacle in his effort to return fugitive killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for a $5,000 reward: old timer Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and dishonorably discharged cavalryman Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) turn up at an opportune moment to help Kemp corner Ben and his feisty gal, Lina (Janet Leigh), and now they want a share of the money. But it’s a long way from the Indian-inhabited Colorado mountains to Kansas, and everyone, it seems, is watching out for number one.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Filmed in Technicolor in the gorgeously rugged Rocky Mountains, Mann’s gritty, thrilling Western hinges on the hidden motives of its five protagonists, each of whom is running from a sordid past. In a none-too-wholesome role, Stewart is brilliant as a bitter war veteran whose fiancee abandoned him while he was away at the front-and made off with the title to his ranch. Mitchell’s no-luck miner and Meeker’s unsavory, no-account soldier vie with Kemp as Ryan, cackling like a jackal, sets all parties against each other while plotting his escape. The radiant Leigh rounds out the cast playing Lina, a misguided gal longing for a new life in California who falls for Stewart. “Spur” is a tough, bristling horse drama by noir director Anthony Mann.


    The Man from Laramie (1955)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Laramie native Will Lockhart (James Stewart) rolls into Coronado, N.M., with a wagon train of goods he aims to deliver, but his real motive is to find the person responsible for selling rifles to the Apaches who killed his brother. Lockhart soon learns the town is part of a vast empire owned by Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), an aging patriarch trying to decide whether to leave his vast holdings to Vic (Arthur Kennedy), his right-hand man, or his only son Dave (Alex Nicol), a dangerously unhinged cretin. Lockhart’s dust-up with Dave soon puts him into conflict with the Waggomans and town authorities.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Anthony Mann’s first picture in CinemaScope was also his last with frequent collaborator Jimmy Stewart, terrifically gritty here playing a former Army captain with a chip on his shoulder who becomes embroiled in a family’s Shakespearean conflict. Shot on location in New Mexico desert, “Laramie” has a stark visual flair to match its tough cattlemen (Kennedy is great as Waggoman’s cunning second in charge) and dark psychological themes of vengeance and greed. Saddle up!


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