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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.


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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!

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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.

  • July 7, 2013

    Best Movies by Farr: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

    by John Farr

    John Farr discusses Norman Jewison’s hilarious cold war comedy co-starring Carl Reiner.


    The Russians Are Coming (1966)

    What It’s About: When an off-course submarine runs aground just off the coast of New England, Soviet commander Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin) and two English-speaking crewmen try to finagle a boat with enough juice to free them. Unfortunately, their attempt to impersonate Norwegians doesn’t fly in town, and Sheriff Link Mattocks (Brian Keith) spreads word that the communists are finally invading.

    Why I Love It:
    One of the nuttiest Cold War comedies of the 1960s, Norman Jewison’s box-office hit “The Russians Are Coming” has a broad, frantic quality that will resonate with kids, past and present. Oscar nominee Arkin stands out as the desperate Russian commander trying to avoid an international incident, and Jonathan Winters is a howl as an unhinged deputy sheriff mobilizing the nearby village. Note: a short advance briefing on the dynamics of the Cold War will likely increase your kids’ enjoyment of this movie.

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  • June 30, 2013

    Best Movies by Farr: Pulp Fiction (1994)

    by John Farr

    John Farr discusses John Travolta’s big comeback film, directed by Quentin Tarantino.


    Pulp Fiction (1994)

    What It’s About: Ground-breaking film tracks various Los Angeles lowlifes-including two hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson)-whose fates are entwined with fading boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), underworld boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames), and his wife Mia ( Uma Thurman), a gorgeous moll with a nose for trouble.

    Why I Love It:
    A genre-twisting, savagely funny tour de force, with vignettes of bantering hit-men, crooked boxers, petty thieves, and an alluring gangster’s wife, all cutting back and forth in time. With its exhilarating, entertaining stew of pop-culture references courtesy of director/screenwriter Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary, “Pulp” earns its status as one of the most influential films of the ’90s. For those able to tolerate its blend of pitch-black comedy and brutal violence (it’s not for everyone), it’s a must-see film. Famous as John Travolta’s comeback vehicle.

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