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  • September 30, 2013

    Best Movies by Farr: Brilliant Burt Lancaster

    by John Farr

    Burt Lancaster understood the importance of choosing the right roles. John Farr covers three of his finest.


    The Train (1964)

    What It’s About:
    In the waning days of the Nazi occupation, cold-blooded Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) pushes through a plan to transport a sizeable shipment of priceless art from Paris to Germany by train. Specifically, the Colonel has his beady eye on paintings by Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, and Picasso. Determined to keep France’s art treasures where they belong, railroad worker Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster) takes on the tricky, dangerous task of derailing this mission, with the help of some gallant friends in the Resistance.

    Why I Love It:
    Based on a real incident, John Frankenheimer’s pulse-pounding war film is lean and riveting, as Lancaster and team work intrepidly to foil Von Waldheim’s exacting plans. Burt is restrained and no-nonsense as Labiche- thankfully he doesn’t even attempt a French accent, with Scofield icy perfection as the ruthless Nazi. The luminous Moreau is fabulous as well in a small but pivotal role.If you like movies with plenty of action and suspense, don’t miss “The Train”.


    The Professionals (1966)

    What It’s About:
    When a lawless Mexican revolutionary named Raza (Jack Palance) abducts the gorgeous Maria (Claudia Cardinale) for ransom, wealthy Texas rancher Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hires the only men he knows have a chance of rescuing his wife: horse trainer Hans (Robert Ryan), tracker and longbow expert Jake (Woody Strode), and stoic leader Fardan (Lee Marvin), who posts bail to recruit his womanizing best pal, explosives pro Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), for this tricky job. The trek is dangerous, with bandidos in the canyons and Raza’s trigger-happy watchmen on patrol, but with $10,000 each on the barrelhead if they bring Maria back, the men are highly determined.

    Why I Love It:
    Richard Brooks’s self-penned, high-energy Western, set in the waning years of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, is a tense, gritty and exciting horse drama. The teaming of Marvin and Lancaster, playing Raza’s disenchanted ex-amigos, works brilliantly, while Strode and Ryan offer fine support as talented sidekicks. Italian bombshell Cardinale, in her first English-speaking role, provides plenty of fiery va-va voom, too, especially in league with Palance’s rough-riding Raza, who proves to be quite a romantic himself. Filmed on location in Nevada, “The Professionals” is a rousing, thoughtful action movie that deals with questions of money versus morality, and the last gasp of noble frontier idealism.


    The Swimmer (1968)

    What It’s About:
    Hopping from one backyard swimming pool to another in suburban Connecticut, affluent, middle-aged ad executive Ned (Burt Lancaster) appears to be fit and happy. His neighbors, however, seem distraught and worried about Ned’s mental state, and it slowly becomes evident that his destination is not just home, but a reckoning with the devastating truth of his past- and present.

    Why I Love It:
    Perry’s heart-wrenching adaptation of the celebrated John Cheever short story digs under the skin of suburban malaise to reveal a kind of festering wound of disappointment, represented by a man absolutely naked in his psychological trauma. Lancaster never really gave a bad performance, but here he is riveting, playing a manic, effusively upbeat man who keeps insisting to everyone that he’s “okay”. Slowly, of course, we come to realize some darker things about Ned, and why he’s really not okay at all. Perry handles the slow reveal with magisterial grace, with all of it building to a shattering final image. Stylishly photographed and robustly acted, this unforgettable film will swim through your brain for a long time.


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

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  • September 22, 2013

    Best Movies by Farr: The Lady Vanishes

    by John Farr

    John Farr discusses one of the great train movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock.


    The Lady Vanishes (1938)

    What It’s About:
    When elderly Miss Froy (May Whitty) disappears without a trace on a train en route to England, her acquaintance Iris (Margaret Lockwood) searches every cabin and corner-without success. Stranger still, the other passengers deny this charming old lady ever existed. Despite their skepticism and her own increasing self-doubt, Iris pursues the truth with the aid of handsome musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), who’s more attracted to Iris than to the mystery.

    Why I Love It:
    Hitchcock’s timeless classic begins on a high comic note, then quickly transforms into a suspense film with political overtones. As in “The 39 Steps,” the priceless banter between the heroine and her unlikely ally elevates what is already a nifty nail-biter into something infinitely more special: a romantic mystery. The cast of eccentrics-especially two English tourists played by Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne-give this “Lady” extra punch, and Dame May Whitty is adorable as the elusive old lady who causes all the fuss.

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  • September 15, 2013

    Best Movies by Farr: Need-to-Watch Norman Jewison

    by John Farr

    Prolific director Norman Jewison has hemled dozens of films, many of them considered classics. John Farr delves into Jewison’s middle 1980s output to recommend three need-to-see films.


    A Soldier’s Story (1984)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    In the rigidly segregated military of the American South during the 1940s, a highly unpopular black sergeant named Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar) is found murdered.The starchy, all-business Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins), a black officer, visits the base to launch an official inquiry, and gets more than he bargained for. Though the investigation proves much more charged and complex than expected, the determined Davenport sees it through to a surprise conclusion.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Based on Charles Fuller’s play, which he also adapted to the screen, this cerebral mystery operates on several levels, as we get to know the murdered man through flashbacks and see how many people had a motive to kill him. Set on top of this is the condescension with which the inquiry is treated by the white brass. All these ingredients make for a meaty, involving murder tale, shedding stark light on the racism of the time. A young Denzel Washington is particularly strong in an early pivotal role, and the late Caesar was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the loathsome Waters (note: both had originated their roles on stage.) This “Story” was also Academy-nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay; it’s easy to see why.


    Agnes of God (1985)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    A bizarre occurrence is reported in a Catholic convent: a young nun, Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly), is found bloodied but alive in her room, along with her new-born child, now dead. Court appointed psychiatrist Martha Livingstone (Jane Fonda) is sent to the convent to investigate. There she comes up against formidable Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft), who seems as intent on protecting the child-like Agnes as Martha is on uncovering the truth.

    WHY I LOVE IT:
    Norman Jewison’s adaptation of the hit Broadway play makes for a gripping spiritual mystery, where no conventional solutions or answers materialize. The movie works as both whodunit and drama, as two strong women, one representing science, the other faith, go head-to-head to explain an unthinkable crime and determine the fate of the innocent at its center. All three leads make the most of what they’re given, with the late Anne Bancroft and young Tilly particularly good (both were Oscar-nominated). An involving, thought-provoking film from skilled veteran Jewison.


    Moonstruck (1987)

    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 in Italy caring for his dying mother, Loretta falls for Johnny’s wayward younger brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Meanwhile, Loretta’s mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis) has her own romantic troubles, trying to keep the embers burning with preoccupied husband Cosmo (Gardenia). Just how will all these messy issues of “amore” work themselves out?

    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.


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

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  • August 11, 2013

    Best Movies by Farr: The Parallax View

    by John Farr

    John Farr discusses one of his favorite Warren Beatty films, directed by Alan J. Pakula.


    The Parallax View (1974)

    What It’s About: Reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is onto a terrifying, wide-ranging conspiracy in the wake of a prominent senator’s assassination. He must substantiate his theory to editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), who has reason to doubt him thanks to past irresponsible behaviors. Frady does indeed have a tiger by the tail, and the burning question becomes: will he manage to live long enough to get his scoop?

    Why I Love It:
    One of our top political paranoia thrillers, director Pakula uses this story to stir up close-to-the-surface fears and doubts about hidden machinations deeply embedded in our country’s recent past. The result is eerily compelling. Direction, script and acting are uniformly excellent, and the film’s climax is particularly intense. This subtle, intelligent thriller ranks among our favorite Beatty outings, with a jittery Prentiss and nicely seasoned Cronyn providing first-rate support among a stellar cast. Michael Small’s memorable music score also adds to the tension. View this!

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • July 13, 2013

    Best Movies by Farr: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

    by John Farr

    John Farr discusses a clever suspense film that showcases Walter Matthau’s versatility, directed by Joseph Sargent.


    The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

    What It’s About: The responsibilities of the New York City Transit police are considerable, especially when a group of criminals takes a subway train hostage between stations. Then the whole crazy town gets into the act. Luckily laconic Lieutenant Zach “Z” Garber (Walter Matthau) is the man on the scene, and he’s determined to flush out his clever quarry before gang ringleader Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) fulfills his promise of killing the passengers one-by-one.

    Why I Love It:
    Joseph Sargent’s pulsating cat-and-mouse thriller gives off a potent seventies flavor, a time when the Big Apple was in fiscal crisis. Salty New York characters are in abundance, and dog-faced Matthau fits right in, effortlessly assuming the jaded, rumpled contours of veteran Manhattan cop. As Z’s chief nemesis, Shaw’s Mr. Blue is a study in contrasts: cold, sharp, organized, and ruthless. In a city already coming apart at the seams, can overextended authorities prevail over these audacious criminals?

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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