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  • November 2, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: 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.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • October 13, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: 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.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • October 6, 2010

    Reel 13 is your ticket to the New York Film Festival

    Another New York Film Festival brought great movies from across the world to the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Program Director (and Reel 13 Indies host) Richard Pena gives a recap of some of this year’s highlights.

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  • October 5, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: 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.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • September 28, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: 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.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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