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  • January 10, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Serious Stanley Kramer

    by John Farr

    As Reel 13 prepares to air the Stanley Kramer Classic, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, John Farr selects three of the late director’s most intense works.


    The Defiant Ones (1958)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When convicts John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) escape a chain gang manacled together, they must put aside their mutual antipathy. Jackson’s an uneducated Southern bigot who doesn’t hide his contempt for Cullen, while Cullen exhibits his own well-earned hatred of “crackers”. Still, given the circumstances, they must rely on their combined resources to survive.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Another of maverick producer/director Kramer’s consciousness-raising social films, this tale proved a potent metaphor for race relations in 1958. Virtually simultaneous with the rise of the civil-rights movement, this progressive adventure eloquently presented the case for racial harmony in the story of a gutsy prison-break film. Poitier-who at age 30 was set to go where no black actor had gone before–more than holds his own with Curtis, then a big star, who plays the despicable “Joker” to perfection.


    On the Beach (1959)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After learning that a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of humanity, U.S.S. Sawfish sub commander Capt. Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) finds a group of survivors near Melbourne, including lovely Moira (Ava Gardner), guilt-ridden scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), and newlyweds Peter (Anthony Perkins) and Mary Holmes (Donna Anderson). Knowing that slowly creeping radiation from the northern hemisphere will eventually kill them all, each deals with the impending doom in their own way.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A stark wake-up call in its time, Kramer’s blunt, unswervingly bleak doomsday classic was based on a popular novel by Nevil Shute and premiered in major cities around the world on the same day in 1959. Though hardly subtle, “Beach” does boast fine performances by Peck, Gardner, a young Perkins, and Astaire in his first purely dramatic role, playing wildly (and confidently) against type as an intellectual with a heavy conscience.


    Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This dramatization of the famous Nuremberg trials centers on Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), who’s sent to Germany as chief Allied judge (Haywood’s character was based on real-life jurist Robert Jackson). Prosecutor Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) tries a group of top-level Nazis for complying with Hitler’s inhumane edicts, facing off against defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Max Schell). As Haywood presides over the historic trial, he ponders where the great nation went wrong, and how to apportion the blame.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Long but brilliant, “Judgment” was a box-office sensation, due to director Kramer’s sensitive, socially conscious approach, which examines the degree to which people should be held responsible for following orders. The movie includes a host of sterling performances: Schell stands out as the impassioned defense attorney (the part netted him an Oscar), as do Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, whose tragic characters poignantly mirror the consuming sadness in their real lives. “Judgment” is an absorbing, true-to-life reckoning with the infamous Nazi legacy and the nature of modern justice.


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  • January 4, 2011

    Best Movies by Farr: Early Billy Wilder

    by John Farr

    Billy Wilder’s early films, like this week’s Classsic, One, Two, Three, launched a brilliant career. Here are three other gems.


    The Major and the Minor (1942)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unable to pay for a train ticket back home to Iowa, big-city office worker Sue Applegate (Rogers) decides to pose as a 12- year-old girl for a reduced fare. On the train, kind Major Kirby (Ray Milland) takes “Sue-Sue” under his wing, but her scheme is danger of exposure once Kirby’s fiancee (Rita Johnson) and her in- the-know 12-year-old sister (Diana Lynn) enter the picture. Also, little Sue’s developing a not-so-little crush on the Major .

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Leave it to legendary director Billy Wilder to turn what could have been a dunderheaded studio comedy into a first-rate howler with satirical overtones. With puckish irreverence, Wilder –in his directorial debut-shouldered a potentially dicey subject (a blossoming romance between a soldier and a minor) and lathered it with just enough intelligence, wit and compassion to please Hollywood audiences! Rogers and Milland play their roles with an insouciant innocence, too, under his peerless direction. You’ll love “The Major and the Minor,” a madcap Lolita story like no other!


    The Lost Weekend (1945)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Struggling writer Don Birnham (Ray Milland) has a nasty drinking problem that worries his brother, Nick (Phillip Terry), who’s reluctant to leave his sibling alone. Don convinces Nick and his own girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) to take in a concert without him, promising to do some serious work on a novel. Instead, Don hunts for a hidden stash of booze, finds money, and goes on a hellish, two-day alcoholic binge.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Billy Wilder’s searing look at the “problem” of alcoholism was harsh, unpleasant stuff for audiences to swallow in the ’40s, but Paramount execs-who nearly shelved “Weekend” over pressure from temperance and liquor lobbyists-were thrilled when it became a huge hit. That’s due entirely to Milland’s riveting, Oscar-winning portrayal of Don, a man so hysterically self-destructive that he sacrifices his dignity and others’ goodwill to keep himself in a state of perpetual stupor. Cheery it’s not, but “Lost Weekend” is a landmark work, showcasing Wilder at his gut-wrenching best. Wyman also excels in an early role as the concerned Helen.


    Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ducking into the garage of a decayed Hollywood mansion to evade his creditors, heavily indebted screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) encounters Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging star of the silent screen who recruits Gillis to work on her hopeless comeback script. Penniless and cynical, Gillis agrees to help the wealthy, barely remembered star, and eventually becomes Norma’s kept man.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Recently remastered by Paramount, “Sunset Boulevard” is finally getting its due. One of the all-time great Tinseltown satires, this noirish tale of an opportunistic, down-and-out young writer and the nostalgic, delusional film luminary who ensnares him takes a harsh look at an industry that eats its own. Holden, whose character narrates from beyond the grave, is impeccable as the sardonic Gillis, but the show belongs to real-life silent star Swanson, an ideal choice to play the creepy, twisted Norma. Great support form Nancy Olson (as Joe’s appalled girlfriend) and Erich Von Stroheim (as Norma’s protective chauffeur) round out this shocking, sordid gem. Are you ready for your close-up?


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  • December 28, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Classic Costner Characters

    by John Farr

    As Reel 13 airs what may be Kevin Costner’s most celebrated role, John Farr takes a look back at three more memorable Costner performances.


    Silverado (1985)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The plot of this Western charmer is strictly boilerplate, but it hardly matters. Four unlikely heroes (Kevin Kline and Danny Glover, Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner) are thrown together to save the town of Silverado from corrupt Sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy), and some other unscrupulous types, including McKendrick (Ray Baker), the man who’s pulling all the strings in these here parts.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Charismatic performances and swift pacing combine to make this a rousing piece of entertainment in the grand Western tradition. John Bailey’s stunning cinematography and Bruce Broughton’s majestic, Oscar-nominated score certainly help, but in the end, it’s the cast that hooks you- they seem to be having so much fun the audience just has to get in on it. Linda Hunt registers in particular as a sympathetic saloon operator, but a young Costner steals the picture as the boyishly exuberant Jake. This was the role that made him a star.


    The Untouchables (1987)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    During the Prohibition era, government agent Eliot Ness is sent to Chicago to foil megalomaniacal gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro), who’s making a killing selling illegal hooch in collusion with corrupt local cops and politicos. Dismayed at first by Capone’s steely grip on the city, Ness eventually befriends older Irish patrolman Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), seemingly the city’s only honest lawman, who helps squeaky-clean Ness put the screws to Scarface Al.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Inspired by the 1950s TV series and scripted by David Mamet, this absorbing, operatic gangster flick-a box-office hit in 1987-explores the moral ambiguities of justice, and represents perhaps De Palma’s finest moment in the director’s chair. In a star-making turn, Costner excels as idealistic G-man Ness, schooled in the ways of the street by Connery, who deservedly picked up an Oscar for his superb portrayal of acerbic veteran cop Malone. With a teeth-clenching, tour de force shoot-out in a train station capping the action, “The Untouchables” is a nimbly directed, top-shelf period thriller.


    Field of Dreams (1989)

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    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Iowa Farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) obeys inner voice telling him to turn part of his land into a baseball field. “If you build it, he will come,” says the voice. And in this mystical parable of faith and hope, come he does, in the form of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson’s ghost (Ray Liotta), and some other spectral teammates from the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox team. But Ray has some traveling to do himself to get to the bottom of what is actually happening on his field – and why.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted by the director from W.R. Kinsella’s book, this beautifully realized, old-fashioned fantasy movie that raises the spirit and touches the heart. Costner is perfect in a role originally delivered to Tom Hanks, while James Earl Jones provides magnificent support as a reclusive writer who joins Kinsella on his crusade. Ray Liotta also scores in a pre-“Goodfellas” outing playing the legendary “Shoeless Joe” Jackson. This quintessentially American classic goes down just as well on repeat viewings.


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  • November 16, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Laudable Tommy Lee

    by John Farr

    This week, one of John Farr’s favorite working actors makes an appearance on Reel 13. Here’s John’s selection of can’t-miss Tommy Lee Jones performances.


    Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
    Based on the life of country-music star Loretta Lynn, this affecting film traces Lynn’s rise from humble beginnings in the coal-mining hills of Kentucky to star of the Grand Old Opry. Her husband Mooney (Tommy Lee Jones) serves as muse and manager, but finds his role minimized once she hits it big. As for Loretta, the touring life is anything but glamorous. Yet through a range of conflicts which could easily demolish other unions, Mooney and Loretta’s love endures.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Apted’s affecting, flavorful biopic is the tale of a young woman intent on using her musical gift to escape an impoverished mountain life, and also the unvarnished story of a real marriage, filled with bruises and bumps, that still manages to last. Spacek won the Oscar that year for her note-perfect performance as Loretta (which included singing her own parts), but Jones is every bit as good as Mooney. Also look for an impressive take by Beverly D’Angelo on the legendary Patsy Cline.


    The Fugitive (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the 60′s TV series involves Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), a prominent Chicago doctor accused of murdering his wife. The jury doesn’t buy Kimble’s story about confronting a one-armed man in his apartment the night his wife was killed, and he is convicted. When Kimble escapes custody, he hunts the real culprit, and ace U.S Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) gets assigned to track him down. Will Gerard get to Kimble before the doctor can clear himself?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A textbook example of a first-rate thriller, buoyed by Davis’s breathless pacing and a picture-stealing performance from Jones, who won an Oscar. Drawing from his Indiana Jones days, Ford is just right as the besieged hero always one step ahead of disaster, but Jones’s Gerard, whose drive is offset by a wry, folksy humor, is intensely charismatic as the intrepid hound-dog on Kimble’s trail. Over ten years after its initial release, it’s worth another peek if you haven’t seen it since. First-timers should definitely plunge.


    No Country for Old Men (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Deep in the desert of West Texas, lone hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a $2 million cache in the aftermath of a professional drug deal gone very bad. When he returns to retrieve the money, he sets in motion a long, violent chain of events. Though he doesn’t realize it yet, an unfathomably evil killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is methodically tailing him, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Meanwhile local sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), wearied and disillusioned by his job, maintains a slow-motion pursuit.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the Coen brothers’ multiple Oscar winner is their darkest movie yet, featuring an outstanding performance by Bardem as an enigmatic madman whose weapon of choice is a cattle-bolt stun gun. Brolin and Jones turn in solid work, too, as men whose personal experience with violence colors their decision-making in markedly different ways. Tense and gripping, “No Country” taps into our anxieties about a world that seems to have lost its sense of moral order.


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  • November 9, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: 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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