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  • July 12, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Honoring Anthony

    by John Farr

    John Farr reviews three oft-overlooked Anthony Hopkins performances.

    The Elephant Man (1980)


    Hideously deformed by a rare disease, John Merrick (John Hurt) makes a meager living in Victorian England as a circus sideshow freak, but is routinely mistreated by his cruel employer. Rescued from this despairing existence by Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a caring, highly respected doctor fascinated with his condition, the kindly, soft-spoken Merrick reveals himself to be a person of acute intelligence. Viewed as a curiosity by outsiders, he attempts to live with dignity in spite of his debilitating, horrific appearance.


    Filmed in eerie black and white by “Blue Velvet” director David Lynch, this dour, heartbreaking drama about the real-life Merrick, known as “the Elephant Man,” perfectly captures the gloomy, gothic atmosphere of late-19th-century England. But it also relates a deeply compassionate story, with Hurt delivering a pained, Oscar-nominated performance through all the heavy make-up, and an understated Hopkins equally sensitive as Dr. Treves. With an excellent supporting cast including John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, and Wendy Hiller, “The Elephant Man” is a haunting tale that asks how we define humanity.

    The Remains of the Day (1993)


    In 1930s Britain, “perfect” butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is hired to serve in the household of Lord Darlington (James Fox), a stuffy, arrogant man of means, alongside his frail, ailing butler father (Peter Vaughan) and new housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). Stevens is so dedicated in his service and removed from the world of human emotion that he refuses to cope with his father’s grave illness-or acknowledge his budding feelings for Miss Kenton. Meanwhile, the winds of war are blowing, and the callow Darlington appears to be throwing in his chips with the Nazis.


    Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “Remains” is a refined, elegantly crafted study of loss, regret, and the costs of emotional repression. Hopkins is masterful as Stevens, a man hiding behind an unswervingly dedicated, almost pathologically formal veneer. And the ever-charming Thompson is an excellent foil, attempting to draw Stevens out of his fortress of unfeeling. Lovingly handled by the Merchant-Ivory team, with exquisite period detail and coolly expressive cinematography, “Remains” is a cinematic gem of exceedingly good taste.

    The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)


    New Zealand native Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) has had a passion for motorcycles-and all fast-accelerating machines-since childhood. Tinkering endlessly with a 600cc 1920 Indian model for most of his life, the now-retired Munro decides to follow his dream to Bonneville, Utah, where he plans to break the land-speed record on the world-famous salt flats, despite his advanced age and the homemade hackery of his two-wheeled racer.


    Chewing his role with obvious delight, Hopkins is terrific in Donaldson’s rousing, against-the-odds road movie, which chronicles the real-life exploits of quixotic Kiwi roadster Munro in the ’60s. Initially barred from participating in the Speed Week time trials, the amiably gruff senior finally gets a shot thanks to respected pro driver Jim Moffett (played by Chris Lawford). Donaldson weaves dramatic details of Munro’s journey with plenty of spirited humor and offbeat encounters with boosters, fellow travelers, and even a transvestite motel clerk. Diane Ladd’s widow/love interest and Paul Rodriguez’s car salesman are especially memorable. Get in the driver’s seat with “Indian,” and enjoy the rickety but exhilarating ride.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • July 6, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Courtroom Thrillers

    by John Farr

    John Farr presents a voir dire of must-see courtroom classics.

    Anatomy of a Murder (1959)


    Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former prosecutor who’s at a professional turning point. Now out of the district attorney’s office, he’s a defense lawyer, and needs a high-profile assignment to establish himself. He finds it in the case of Lieutenant Fred Mannion (Ben Gazzara), an army officer accused of killing the man who raped Bannion’s sexy wife Laura (Lee Remick). The case grows more complex the deeper Biegler probes, and he’s also up against a ruthless young prosecutor (George C. Scott) intent on winning a conviction at all costs.


    Preminger’s crackling courtroom drama makes for a twisty, racy, irresistible film. Stewart is in his element as the dogged Biegler, but junior players Gazzara, Remick and Scott are every bit as good. Gritty atmosphere and a smoky Ellington score (with Duke himself in a rare on-screen appearance) help make this daring, distinctive picture hum.

    The Verdict


    Boston lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), a washed-up alcoholic, faces the battle of his life when he decides to pursue a medical malpractice suit against a powerful Catholic hospital on behalf of a young comatose woman’s family. Of course, the case he lands appears impossible to win given his tenuous condition and the array of egal forces against him, led by the shrewd and powerful attorney Ed Concannon (James Mason).


    A searing, moody courtroom drama masterfully directed by Sidney Lumet, the film earned five Oscar nominations in 1982, including one for writer David Mamet. As Frank Galvin, Newman shows a rare vulnerability as a man struggling to redeem himself before it’s too late. This film represents both courtroom and human drama at its finest, with veteran player Jack Warden superb as Mickey Morrissey, Galvin’s only remaining colleague and friend.

    A Civil Action (1999)


    This fact-based film tells the story of Jan Schlictmann (John Travolta), a personal-injury attorney who pursues a negligence suit against corporate titans W.R Grace and Beatrice Foods. The companies have a joint interest in a leather-production facility in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose illegal dumping of toxic waste may have led to the deaths of several local children. Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the mother of one victim, decides to sue. As Jan immerses himself in this high-stakes battle, he wagers everything he has on a positive outcome, but his opposing counsel, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant, ruthless legal minds around. Is Jan in over his head?


    Produced by Robert Redford and based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr, this gripping, literate enviro-action legal drama is the classic David and Goliath story – the little people versus big industry – told with gusto in a decidedly unpredictable fashion. “Action” features a stellar cast, notably John Lithgow as the trial judge, and and an Oscar-nominated Duvall as Facher. William H. Macy also distinguishes himself playing Jan’s understandably anxious accountant. It may sound dry as paper, but this absorbing courtroom drama grabs you by the throat and never lets go.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • June 28, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Vintage Family Classics

    by John Farr

    John Farr offers three family friendly films to accompany this week’s Reel 13 Classic, “The Little Princess.”

    March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)


    This musical fantasy based on a Victor Herbert operetta features a variety of familiar nursery rhyme characters joining Stannie-Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie-Dee (Oliver Hardy) in Toyland. Stan and Ollie are toy-making apprentices working for no less a personage than Santa himself. Meanwhile, Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry) wants to marry Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight), but evil landlord Silas Barnaby threatens to foreclose on Bo-Peep’s home unless she marries him. She refuses, and then Barnaby frames Tom-Tom, who gets relegated to Bogeyland. Stan and Ollie are around to stir up, then resolve several “fine messes” in the bargain, including the fate of Tom-Tom and Bo-Peep.


    March”, a perennial holiday favorite produced by the legendary Hal Roach, retains its magic, thanks to a charming, refreshingly simple rendering of Toyland and its citizens, some cute songs, and the irresistible antics of Laurel and Hardy as the movie’s hapless heroes. Best for smaller kids and their parents (though more suggestible tykes might get a small scare out of Bogeyland’s denizens). In sum, this is a sweet movie that harkens back to a more innocent, fanciful time, while showcasing an immortal comedy team.

    Captains Courageous (1937)


    Young Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is the pampered son of a wealthy widower and tycoon (Melvyn Douglas) who has learned he can get whatever he wants if he whines, lies, and screams loud enough. On a posh cruise to Europe with his father, Harvey falls overboard and is rescued by a boat full of fishermen led by crusty skipper Disko (Lionel Barrymore) and including kind-hearted, Portugese-born Manuel (Spencer Tracy). As Harvey’s official rescuer, Manuel undertakes to teach the young Harvey about real life and the ways of humble men who work the seas.


    Based on a Rudyard Kipling story, this heartwarming adventure saga follows the transformation of a bratty pantywaist into a decent young man under the tutelage of Tracy’s gentle fisherman. Bartholomew is a natural playing the self-centered child of privilege, and really clicks with Tracy, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the sensitive Manuel (though he hated putting on an Iberian accent). Absorbing for viewers of any age, “Captains” is a rousing tale whose bittersweet climax will not leave a dry eye on deck.

    Lassie Come Home (1943)


    Young Joe (Roddy McDowall) adores his collie, Lassie, and the dog returns his devotion. When hard times force Lassie’s family to sell her to a wealthy nobleman who lives far away (Nigel Bruce), the fiercely loyal and intelligent pooch cannot be deterred from returning to what she considers her true home and master.


    Touching tale gets full MGM treatment, with sumptuous Oscar-nominated Technicolor and a solid cast, including Donald Crisp and Elsa Lanchester as Joe’s parents, and Elizabeth Taylor in her first MGM role. Mc Dowall’s performance is heartfelt and restrained for the time, and Lassie, of course, is the dog we’d all love to own- as evidenced by the numerous movie sequels and TV incarnations that followed.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • June 21, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Fritz Lang in America

    by John Farr

    Fritz Lang directed many fine films; here are 3 of his greatest shot Stateside.

    Fury (1936)


    An innocent man (Spencer Tracy) on his way to a long-awaited reunion with his fiance (Sydney) is stopped by police en-route and accused of a kidnapping he didn’t commit. The angry townspeople then take justice into their own hands, and only later is the enormity of their crime revealed in court.


    Master Director Fritz Lang creates a superb showcase for a young Tracy as a random victim of mob violence. The film’s denunciation of all too common practice (particularly against minorities) was well ahead of its time. This bold, gut wrenching feature culminates in a memorably potent wind-up.

    Hangmen Also Die (1943)


    After Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy), a leader of the underground Czech resistance, assassinates a prominent Nazi minister known as “the Hangman,” the surgeon seeks refuge in the home of Mascha (Anna Lee), whose own father, Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan) is on a short list of enemies of the Reich. Seeking revenge and obedience to Nazi rule, the Gestapo begins rounding up suspected dissidents and agitators, including Novotny. Meanwhile, they issue an ultimatum to the people of Prague: Surrender the assassin or the detainees will die.


    One of the finest anti-Nazi thrillers to emerge from the WWII period, Lang’s noirish approach to the propaganda film involves cloak-and-dagger intrigue, sinister interrogations, and plenty of light-and-shadow atmospherics, courtesy of camera great James Wong Howe. Such elements were second nature to German ex-pat Lang, director of “M” and “The Big Heat,” and his impeccable direction of numerous character actors – a cab driver (Lionel Stander) and a fruit merchant (Sarah Padden), in particular – adds to the visceral power of this story of resistance. Brennan is also excellent playing against type as a radical patriot. See “Hangmen” or die trying.

    The Big Heat (1953)


    Scrupulous police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) targets mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) after a colleague’s suicide note implicates him in corruption at the city-government level. In response, Lagana’s men plant a car bomb meant for the snooping cop, but instead kill Bannion’s wife, prompting the enraged lawman to seek vengeance.


    This brutal, in-your-face noir thriller about organized crime and political graft by German ex-pat Lang is about as hardboiled as they come. For starters, the dialogue is sharp and blunt, like a smack in the jaw, and Ford’s portrayal of the obsessed Bannion is downright fearsome. “Heat” is particularly memorable for two performances: Lee Marvin, as psychotic henchman Vince Stone, and the peerless Gloria Grahame, as a sultry moll whose face Marvin cruelly disfigures-with a cup of scalding hot coffee! Crisply paced and unrelentingly fierce, “The Big Heat” is one steamy ride.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • June 16, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Mystery Man at the Farewell Meal

    by Sam Hutchins

    Humans have an amazing ability to recover. We can be almost like dogs that way; give us a little positive stimulus and we happily live in the moment. Forget about the misery you were just experiencing, here’s a candy bar. We’re easy like that, myself as much as anyone. The storm darkened sky, pre-downpour humidity and stressful drive had created the impression that it was much later than it actually was. I sat down and gave myself a stern talking to. That, a coffee, a smoke, and a long hot shower put me back at the top of my game. I felt electric with excitement when I hit the lobby. There was no bar, so I passed the time thinking about all the people I know in L.A., friends present and past. Even the inevitable twenty minute wait past the appointed meeting time did not temper my enthusiasm.

    By the time we eventually did depart it was a perfect West Coast evening. The humidity had vanished with the rain and the desert grit had washed down our respective shower drains. Saltwater breezes carried our truck out and onto the highway, headed for Chinatown. It occurred to me that we had begun our story over a late night meal in a Chinese restaurant in Flushing, Queens.

    “Kar Wai, what type of restaurant are we going to?”

    “Hot pot. Like we went to before. Your favorite kind.”

    It was almost like I knew what he was going to say before he answered. I know how important symmetry and symbols are in his culture. He was bookmarking the end of our scout in the same way he began it.

    “So we finish just like we started, with hot pot. Does this mean we return to New York tomorrow?

    He answered with silence and a smile. I wasn’t letting it go just yet. After months spent in the dark I think I might have gotten a step ahead of him at last. For just this one brief moment, about this simple thing, I had figured him out. I was in tune with the master. My excitement was hard to contain.

    “Our special guest, is it Jackie Pang?”

    After all, she had been the highlight of our initial hot pot dinner. It would have fit perfectly, exact symmetry. He smiled even wider.

    “No, it is not.”

    Damn it, maybe I hadn’t figured him out after all. At least I knew how to make him happy, which was simply a matter of not understanding him. That clearly gave him great pleasure.

    Moments like the one where we emerged from the hotel, feeling the warm ocean breeze and seeing the palm fronds moving in the wind made me wonder why I had never moved to L.A. The forty-five minute drive to the restaurant answered my question. The place was in a strip mall that was composed entirely of Chinese businesses. At one time not so long ago I would be thrown by the concept of the Chinese part of town being in a strip mall. My first experience in a Chinatown was San Francisco, most of the rest were in New York. I knew them as neighborhoods of narrow streets, bright colors and dark alleys. It wasn’t until this trip that I understood Chinatown as a state of mind more than a physical place. I learned this by experiencing the far-flung diaspora through Kar Wai’s introductions; seeing the varied ways and places that the community existed in every part of America.

    Our big surprise guest was a letdown at first. He was a young, very thin and somewhat nerdy Chinese-American fellow named John. After the buildup by Kar Wai I had expected someone more exciting. As was the norm, no detailed introductions or explanations were made. He was simply presented without embroidery. Seemed nice enough, though, and certainly expressed an interest in learning about my craft. Just like our mutual friend he was elusive when questioned, but it soon became apparent that he was an aspiring screenwriter of some sort. After an appropriate bit of attention was paid to our guest I shifted focus to my French friends and, more importantly, the many bottles of Tsingtao we were quaffing.

    The food came in waves, and was absolutely delicious. No one complained as I dumped plenty of hot peppers into the broth, and we took turns plucking aromatic chunks of meat out and popping them in our mouths. John and Kar Wai were pretty intently catching up with one another and despite paying them scant attention I noticed something strange happening. Every so often a person or a few people together would approach our table and take a long look at us. Usually women, and mostly of a certain age. Initially I believed they were fans of Kar Wai’s, but it became clear that they were checking out our new pal John. A few even grabbed quick pictures before giggling and scampering off. I needed to know what the deal was with this kid.

    “Excuse me, sorry for asking, but are you famous, John?”

    He flushed a little and looked away.

    “What, are you a movie star in China?”

    “No, no. I’m not a movie star. I did a little acting when I was younger but not for a long time now.”

    The more I looked, the more familiar he seemed but I could not place it for the life of me. Kar Wai interjected.

    “John is being modest. He was a child actor and is in a couple of very big movies.”

    He shrank a little deeper into his chair. Something else struck me. Throughout the evening he had referred to someone named “Steven” repeatedly and with great respect. I had mentally filed it in the way one does when gathering contextual clues about a recent acquaintance. Now it repeated in my mind. Steven, Steven, a guy named Steven and a young Chinese boy actor. Wait, no, it couldn’t be…

    “Short Round! You’re Short effing Round from Temple of Doom, aren’t you!”

    If he was slouching before, now he was nearly beneath the table. Probably didn’t help that I had absolutely bellowed this last bit, my discretion a casualty of beer and excitement.


    Gears turned and clicked in my head.

    “So that means you are also Data, from The Goonies!”


    “Holy crap, man. You were a big part of my childhood. I love you. “

    “Why thank you.”

    “Holy shit, Short Round. Go figure. So, wait, hang on a second. You complained earlier that you can’t meet any women.”

    “Yes, I am lonely sometimes.”

    “Dude. Dude. Dude, you are frigging Data, man! We can walk into any bar in town, let the girls know who you are and you’ll be fighting them off. Trust me.”

    “No, no, that’s not true. No one cares about that.”

    “It is so true. Even if you weren’t Data we could get you laid just by saying you were him. Man, you’ve got gold and you’re hiding it. Don’t keep your lantern under a bushel, man, shine your light so the world can see!”

    At this point Kar Wai was laughing so hard he was in tears. The rest of the table was enjoying it all as well. That’s how it was with Kar Wai, the best times were as good as life gets. Fun company, copious amounts of food and drink, talking about creative ideas and potential new projects. Most of all, though, we enjoyed the very Fellini-esque atmosphere that surrounded him and swept up whoever he was with. We laughed our way through the rest of the meal, one hilarious moment after another. Truly good times. My only regret was my inability to get John to throw me a line from one of his films, but he would not be moved on this.

    Finally Kar Wai cleared his throat and gave us all a serious look as he raised his glass.

    “Thank you all for the hard work on this scouting journey. We have traveled a long way and seen many good things. I now have what I need for a story. Finish your drinks and we leave. Tomorrow morning we fly back to New York early. When we get to New York we should go look at the choices we like for a location there. Time to make decision.”

    Just like that you go from high to low. The trip ending was both relief and a letdown. The idea of sleeping in my own bed and getting a proper night’s rest was diminished by the knowledge that we would leave directly from the airport and scout NYC without time to even drop our belongings at home or rest up. Also, by now it was after 2 A.M. in the city. I’d be in the air all the next day and somehow still have to arrange a scout that starts as soon as we land. It never does get any easier.

    After making our goodbyes we shambled across the parking lot towards the truck. Kar Wai’s toast had taken the momentum out of the night, and exhaustion was overtaking us. We still faced a long commute to the hotel, followed by a very brief bit of sleep, and a cross-country flight. As we were climbing in the truck the repeated bleating of a horn finally caught our attention. We all turned to see John leaning out of his window.

    “Hey, Sammy! Sammy!”

    “John! What is it?”

    “No time for love now, Dr. Jones!”

    He laughed manically as he sped away into the night.


    At this point we moved from scouting into preproduction, and this seems like as good a place to break off the tale as any.  I want to thank everyone who has been reading this blog.  Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as I did.  I also want to thank the good people at Reel 13 for hosting me.  They have some new and exciting things happening here, so keep checking back.  You can keep up with me at my new photo blog.  It is simply one photo I take each day, whatever I come across in my travels.  You can find it at:

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