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  • April 12, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Marx x 5

    by John Farr

    Revisit five of the Marx Brothers’ Depression-era Paramount masterpieces.


    The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Edition (1930-1933)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The best way to enjoy the nutty antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo is to indulge yourself in this boxed set of five early Paramount classics. A struggling Miami hotel is the scene of The Coconuts, based on the hit Broadway play and starring Groucho as a penurious manager. Animal Crackers tracks the efforts of a certain Captain Spaulding to crack an art-theft case, while the wacky Monkey Business finds the Marx Brothers stowing away on a luxury ship. Horse Feathers follows the demented siblings’ efforts to engineer a comeback for a college-football team, and in Duck Soup they try to govern the unruly nation of Freedonia.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Still one of the funniest vaudeville acts ever to grace stage, television, or silver screen, The Marx Brothers pioneered an antic, anarchic style of gut-busting entertainment that left audiences of the 1930s howling with delight. Even today, the hilarious mix of song-and-dance routines like “The Monkey Doodle-Do” and “Shirt Song”-accompanied, of course, by Harpo’s harp, Groucho’s guitar, and Chico’s expert ivory-tinkling-combined with the sheer nuthouse fervor of their adventures simply dazzle. In fact, “Duck Soup” was a political farce so extreme that Mussolini banned it . This “Silver Screen” set collects the Brothers’ early, outré Paramount outings, the only films where all four funnymen appeared together. Will social satire ever be this goofy again?


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  • April 8, 2010

    A Scouting Life: A Cruel Joke

    by Sam Hutchins

    We rolled on and on. Beautiful, desolate country. Hours of nothing but the landscape. It was hard to tell from the map, but I feared we might wind up driving pretty deep into the night before we found a place to crash. We were all getting rather hungry too, lunch having been mostly beef jerky. Just as the sun was setting we saw evidence of humanity beginning to appear. First a beat-up old trailer, then an ancient roadhouse. As we pulled up to the first place we had seen in several hours, Darius spoke up. “Are you sure this is the best place to eat?” he said.

    I slowly scanned the vast, empty horizon before answering as evenly as possible. “I think this is going to be our best bet.”

    Kar Wai smiled, but then again he always does and no one ever knows what it means.

    We were at a spot called Middlegate station. Built as a stagecoach stop in the 1850’s, it later served as a stop on the Pony Express. It was the next stop after Major’s Station, actually. Hard to believe, but what had been a relatively long day of driving for us was once done on a galloping horse. Those riders must have been tough sons-of-bitches. At least they didn’t have to put up with the emotional tension that was slowly building in the truck.

    The place was full. Modern cowboys crowded the bar, drinking, eating and watching a large television. A pair of blueberry pies sat cooling on a wire rack. I pointed them out to Kar Wai, but he wasn’t interested. Rightly so, I suppose. Although slightly more interesting than Major’s Station, Middlegate was too isolated. At least Major’s had the resources of nearby Ely to support us while filming there. It did beg the question of where the cowboys filling Middlegate came from. The next town was still another 50 miles to the west. It was like “Cheers” but for Unabomber-types.

    We found a table in back and sat for another in a series of increasingly unpleasant meals. Stephane, for all his faults, was a good guy. He had been hired for what was basically a dream job. Working as a producer of documentaries and commercials in Paris, he had somehow caught Wong Kar Wai’s attention. For unknown reasons, Kar Wai had taken him on as inspiration and muse. Kar Wai made a point of referring to him as the “Creative Producer.” He served as a stand-in for our pictures, which is odd considering he is just over five feet tall. He helped Kar Wai with his English dialogue, which is odd, as he had a limited command of the language. The two mens’ sensibilities seemed to be almost directly opposite: Kar Wai’s zen calm compared to Stephane’s wacky anarchic energy. Perhaps this contrast was what had appealed to Kar Wai initially, but he seemed to be having second thoughts. He was treating Stephane terribly.

    “We will all sit here. Except Stephane. Why don’t you eat in the car.”

    A harmless enough joke it would seem, but everyone was competing for the master’s attentions so it was actually quite cruel in a quiet way. The hurt flashed across Stephane’s face as Kar Wai turned his attentions to Darius. Those two were getting quite close. Hurtful as that may have been to Stephane, it was ultimately more important for the film that the director and DP get along. Still, it could have been handled so much better. We ate quickly and in relative silence before getting back on the road.

    Stephane took a shift behind the wheel, expressing his mortification and anger by testing the limits of the truck and his luck at avoiding police. Fine with me. He’s a good driver when he pays attention and it was a long way to Reno. Also it allowed me time to attend to my work. Piloting this scout was pretty much a full-time job to begin with, but I had a number of other responsibilities. I had found and hired good local scouts in Memphis, Detroit, Vegas and Los Angeles, and was supervising their work, and also had a small staff scouting and preparing to start filming back in New York. Cell service was still nonexistent, but I was able to lose myself in the hundreds of scouting photographs I had yet to review. I looked through them, deciding which were worthy of being shown to Kar Wai. It was tricky work sorting them out given his mercurial nature and unpredictable taste. Soon darkness enveloped us as we sped along, the glow of my laptop illuminating the interior of the truck.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • April 6, 2010

    A Scouting Life: The Loneliest Road in America

    by Sam Hutchins

    We couldn’t leave Ely fast enough the next morning. The place had a certain malevolence tucked just beneath the surface, and our presence there was enough to awaken it. Nothing that couldn’t be handled, but the time to deal with the hustlers, grifters and flakes was later. For now we were just passing through and taking some pictures. Definitely time for us to get on down that road.

    As had happened in the past, circumstances dictated our route. We had thoroughly scouted southern Nevada, then covered the eastern part of the state right up to the Utah border. North and west were our only remaining options. A quick glance at the map indicated that our choice was to take Highway 50 out of Ely. A long stretch of it would get us into Reno. Although Ely seemed to fill our “dingy card room in a desolate, menacing town” quota, it behooved us to see what iterations of such were available between there and Reno, if not in Reno proper.

    Rte. 50 rises sharply through the mountains west of town. We passed multiple rough gravel turnoffs that led to mining operations past and present. I’d had some fun spelunking abandoned mines outside of Phoenix before, but that was not meant for this trip. Now it was time to drive, and so I did. Over and through the first range and across another high desert plain. And another. And another.

    Although the land was lovely, it was desolate. We lost cell service as soon as we left Ely and had not seen any sign of life since. No other cars passing, no telephone poles stretched along the roadside. No mailboxes or lonely houses isolated off in the distance. Even with our early start it was nearly lunchtime by the time we saw another person.

    Rounding a bend we encountered the town of Eureka. Eureka, Nevada is a town of 300, which represents the last vestiges of another former booming mine town. It reminded me of nothing more that the ruins I had seen of the Anaszi people in southern Colorado. The town seemed like it was both part of the mountain and also being swallowed by it. Houses clutched precariously to the cliffs on either side of the road. It could just as easily have been abandoned as populated by the looks of it.

    The only open business was a combination gas station/convenience store, the retail part of the operation occupying what appeared to be someone’s living room. After gassing up we had a brief chat with the proprietor. Turns out the stretch of road we had just traveled was the “busy” part of Rte. 50. West of Eureka it had been labeled, “The loneliest road in America.” My friends were a little dismayed to learn that lunch would consist of homemade beef jerky and Dr. Pepper. We ate as we drove.

    It was out there, on the vast open road, that I truly began to fear the Chinese people. Kar Wai had already proved to be fairly inconsiderate of other people’s needs. That can easily be attributed to working as a film director, though. Regrettably it comes with the job. But somewhere on that lonely drive we wound up discussing politics, specifically the election that was taking place in France soon. At one point I used the word “communist” pejoratively and received a sharp reprimand from Kar Wai for doing so.

    I was speechless. Here was a man whose family had been violently torn apart by the Communists. They had killed his brother and forced his mother to flee to Hong Kong with him. Yet when I spoke ill of the philosophy he was quick to point out that the good of the whole was more important than the needs of a few. My fears were later proved true by another even more frightening incident, proving the sincerity of his beliefs.

    A few months after this particular day a group of us were back scouting in New York. It was an exceptionally warm summer night, and the end of a very long day. Work was seven days a week with these people, they never took a day off. Further, the days themselves were generally 14-15 hours in length. So there we were, marching down the smelly, sweaty back streets of the Meatpacking District when one of our producers, a woman named Alice, simply collapsed from exhaustion. She stumbled and went face down on the greasy sidewalk. Neither Kar Wai nor any of the rest of the Chinese missed a step. They kept right on going, leaving her there. Looking around in shock, I ran and caught Kar Wai by the arm.

    “Alice has collapsed. We should take her to the hospital.”

    He gave me a long, blank stare before replying.

    “Put her in the van. She’ll be fine. Just tired.”

    He turned on his heel and went right on scouting. I threw Alice over my shoulders and carried her back to our van where she could at least get some air conditioning and water. After making sure she was not critical, I had to turn and run back to catch up with the scout.

    But that was later. This particular day in the mountains I was just figuring out how cold Kar Wai could be. Silence settled in over the truck as I tested its limits by driving as quickly as I could. I no longer wanted to be out in the desert at night with these guys.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • April 5, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Multimedia Bing Crosby

    by John Farr

    Bing Crosby, the first multimedia star of radio, film, and television.


    Holiday Inn (1942)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After a painful bust-up with his girlfriend, song-and-dance man Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) decides he’s had it with the big city and retires to a farm in New England, which he converts into an inn, complete with floor shows, but open only on public holidays. Friend and co-headliner Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) wants to make a film about the inn, but things get complicated when he tangles with Hardy over lovely leading lady Linda Mason (Debbie Reynolds).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Conceived from an idea by composer Irving Berlin, Mark Sandrich’s “Holiday Inn” is a humorous, festive Crosby/Astaire musical that finds both performers in tip-top crooning and toe-tapping form. Famous for introducing “White Christmas,” the best-selling single of all time and an instant favorite with troops overseas, “Inn” is consistently tuneful and entertaining, with a sublime Irving Berlin score that covers not just Christmas, but all major holidays. Watch for the July 4th rave-up “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers,” one of many musical highlights.


    Going My Way (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When easy-going, young Catholic priest Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives at St. Dominic’s, a rundown church heavily in debt, he faces a disillusioned congregation and the downbeat attitude of its elder curate, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Through the miracle of song, however, O’Malley raises spirits all around and ultimately rescues the beleaguered parish.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Though not focused on Christmas, Leo McCarey’s “Going My Way” exudes holiday spirit and was a smashing box-office success. Bing Crosby, a staunch Catholic himself, is pure gold as Father O’Malley, a young priest who injects hope and purpose into a fading congregation and a group of neighborhood kids, while Barry Fitzgerald is perfectly winning as his crusty superior. Both actors won Oscars, as did the film, thanks to writer-director McCarey’s eloquent direction. Moving rather than maudlin, “Going My Way” is a sentimental favorite.


    The Country Girl (1954)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When bigshot Broadway director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) loses his lead for a musical set to open in three weeks, he takes a chance on washed-up alcoholic singer Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby). Even though Dodd is committed to boosting his shaky leading man’s confidence with a combination of pep talks and tough love, he feels constantly thwarted by Elgin’s cold, cynical wife, Georgie (Grace Kelly), whose manipulations threaten to deep-six his production.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from the Clifford Odets play, Seaton’s searing, melodramatic story of a twisted menage à trois boasts three superb performances: Crosby as the self-loathing, destructive crooner, Kelly as his morose, long-suffering wife, and Holden as the strapping, misogynistic director who slowly learns the truth about both of them. Crosby rightly earned an Oscar nod for his convincing turn as a sad-sack boozer, but it was Kelly who took home a statue for her radically unglamorous role as Georgie. “Girl” is a poignant backstage drama that remains true to its tortured heart.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • March 31, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Ex-Cons

    by John Farr

    John Farr examines films about ex-cons who have abandoned their crooked ways.


    Sling Blade (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Released from an Alabama psychiatric institution 25 years after he murdered his mother and her lover, 37-year-old Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) takes a job as a fix-it man in his old hometown. Despite his violent past, the mildly retarded Childers is a gentle soul who befriends a needy young boy, Frank (Lucas Black), and his widowed mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), who offers to take him in. But Karl’s delicate re-entry into society is disturbed by Linda’s no-good boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), a cruel, abusive drunk who treats him with utter contempt.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Alternately haunting and sweetly affecting, “Sling Blade” is a beautifully accomplished debut by actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, who conceived, wrote, directed and starred in this absorbing drama. (He won an Oscar for his original screenplay.) Thornton’s cathartic, humane portrayal of Childers–a mild-mannered simpleton who quietly protects and cares for Frank and his mom but is haunted by the past–stirs our deepest sympathies. In a nuanced turn, the late John Ritter excels as Linda’s gay friend Vaughan, but the real surprise is country singer Yoakam, whose hateful, hard-drinking Doyle guides the film’s tragic final act.


    Spring Forward (1999)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Paul (Liev Schreiber) is fresh out of jail, working to re-build his life even as past mistakes and unresolved issues threaten to undo his progress. Enter Murph (Ned Beatty), Paul’s older, wiser groundskeeper colleague, who subtly mentors the conflicted younger man. In time, they form a special bond, sharing their ambitions, regrets, and hopes for the future.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A simply told yet provocative story about the gift of friendship, “Spring Forward” is an exquisitely handled character piece fueled by a perceptive script and the considerable skill of the two leads. Shooting in sequence over the course of a year, director Gilroy follows the nuances and little epiphanies of this unlikely friendship through four seasons with nary a misstep, giving us the sense we’re watching it all unfold in real time. Touching and true, “Spring Forward” is a quiet triumph.


    Boy A (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    With the support of his caring, avuncular social worker (Peter Mullan), a young man (Andrew Garfield) is released from prison with a new identity to ease his transition back into society. “Jack” lands a good delivery job and then embarks on a tentative romance with co-worker Michelle (Katie Lyons). But he remains tortured over his childhood role in a headline-making murder, a fact that threatens to disrupt his new life.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell, John Crowley’s gutsy, hard-hitting drama tackles the question of whether we are prepared to forgive our youngest offenders. Mullan’s character believes in Jack and supports him even as the relationship with his own estranged son takes a tragic turn. Garfield carries the film, though, playing Jack as a fragile, vulnerable, good-natured soul who desperately wants to believe that his past is behind him. Poignant and provocative as it flashes back to Jack’s childhood crime, Crowley’s “Boy A” keeps the tension high from the gripping opening scene.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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