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  • March 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Under Surveillance

    by John Farr

    Three films about voyeurism and suspicion.

    The Conversation (1974)


    Detached and distrustful of others, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a deeply private, virtually friendless man whose life is consumed by his special brand of freelance intelligence work. Hired by corporate director Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to monitor the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), Caul is troubled by the fragments of talk he illicitly captures on tape and begins obsessively piecing them together, suspecting a murder is in the works.


    Made before he began work on “The Godfather II,” Coppola’s prescient, haunting drama is a brilliant character study set in a pungent atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy. Hackman is the dark heart of the film, playing a profoundly solitary man tortured by guilt, complicity, and his own inability to trust anyone, including girlfriend Amy, sweetly played by Garr. Coppola’s most artful film, “The Conversation” is dark, brooding, and mysterious, but absorbing nonetheless.

    Caché (2005)


    Television interviewer Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), live a comfortably placid bourgeois life in a Paris condominium, along with their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). But when someone begins to terrorize them by leaving voyeuristic videotapes on their doorstep, along with gruesome stick-figure drawings that appear meaningless yet menacing, their lives are irrevocably disrupted. Who’s watching, and what do they want?


    Austrian director and arch provocateur Michael Haneke crafts a compelling, suspenseful thriller in Caché, deftly suggesting the menace of global terrorism by locating it in the troubled domestic experience of an iconic nuclear family. Auteuil and Binoche are both superb as the couple ripped apart by a long-dormant secret that slowly bubbles to the surface when Georges confronts a horrific incident in his early childhood. Haneke really notches up the tension, relieving it (momentarily) in a kitchen scene that will literally steal your breath away. Intelligent, enigmatic, and shocking, Caché is can’t-miss cinema.

    The Lives of Others (2006)


    After seeing a stage drama by celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), Stasi agent Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Uhlrich Muhe) decides to place the writer under surveillance at the suggestion of a government minister (Thomas Thieme) who privately lusts after Dreymans lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler quickly learns that Dreyman is ultra-patriotic, but as the GDR begins to crack down on his artist friends, his loyalties begin to shiftand so do Wieslers.


    Winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2006, this brisk yet elegantly plotted political thriller concerns a highly disciplined agent of the East German secret police who becomes emotionally involved in the life of one of his suspected dissident targets-though they never meet. In a stoic, tight-lipped performance, Ulrich Muhe is terrific as the cold, unhappy policeman who experiences a personal catharsis after monitoring Dreyman. Koch and Gedeck are wonderful, too, as the lovers doomed to suffer at the hands of abusive officials. Suspenseful and moving, “Others” is an aching tribute to the spirit of love and guarantee of individual rights we too often take for granted.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • March 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

    by John Farr

    A salute to three of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s great ones.

    Oklahoma! (1955)


    Fox introduced the new singing team of MacRae and Jones in this buoyant musical, adapted from the hit play that launched Rodgers and Hammerstein as a songwriting team .The movie follows the round-about romance of a young couple in the rough frontier days of the early 1900s. Cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) has eyes for Oklahoma farm girl Laurey (Shirley Jones), but so does brutish farmhand Jud Frye (Rod Steiger). When Curly rescues Laurey from Jud’s ungentlemanly advances at a social, he also wins her hand, but Jud hasn’t sung his last tune just yet.


    Though the film is long and contains a fairly high corn factor, it’s also visually stunning, and truly soars whenever the music and dancing starts, with peerless renditions of “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “The Surrey With The Fringe On The Top,” and the immortal title tune. The dance numbers, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, are original and exuberant, while Steiger and Gloria Grahame turn in fine performances, respectively playing the dastardly Jud and the naively amorous Ado Annie, “the girl who can’t say no.”

    The King and I (1956)


    In the mid-1860’s, The King of Siam (Yul Brynner) finds himself with many children to educate and care for, so he hires Anna (Deborah Kerr), an English governess, for the position. What he does not count on is her firm and independent approach to the job, which creates interesting interaction between lady and monarch.


    A triumphant screen adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway play turned Yul Brynner into a star. Sets and costumes are breathtaking, the story touching and each song in the lilting score still enchants. Deborah Kerr makes a perfect Anna (with help from Marni Nixon, who dubbed her singing voice), a woman strong enough to stand up to– and perhaps love — a king. This movie will sparkle eternally.

    The Sound of Music (1965)


    Joyous, honey-voiced Austrian nun Maria (Julie Andrews) becomes governess to seven children at the outset of World War II and eventually falls for their handsome widower father, Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). The Nazis are on the move, however, and force the Von Trapps to flee. Will the happy new family survive?


    Shot in pristine color on location near Salzburg-and featuring that dizzying opening shot of Maria belting out the title tune from a verdant hilltop-“Music” fully deserves its reputation as one of the most popular films of all time. The daisy-fresh Andrews is simply terrific, whether she’s acting or singing, and the songs-“Do Re Mi,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and “My Favorite Things”-have become part of our cultural heritage. Adapted from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway play, the film might be a bit schmaltzy at moments, but in all, it remains utterly irresistible. The hills are still alive-and your singing pipes will be too-with the wondrous “Sound of Music.”

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • March 18, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Marlboro Man at the Liberty Club

    by Sam Hutchins

    Ely, Nevada Pop. 4,041

    Ely, Nevada is a town of roughly 4,000 people in White Pine County, close to the geographic center of the state of Nevada. It exists largely due to the now-defunct Kennecot Copper Mine, once a major source of the metal in this country. Tourists visit for the abundant hunting and outdoor activities in Great Basin National Park, as well as the Railroad Museum. Ely has three casinos, dozens of bars, and two whorehouses. Its population was now temporarily increased by four.

    Main Street laid out nicely, framed by the mountains as it was. There were a few architectural gems there amidst a lot of ugliness. Had it been preserved a little better it might have potential for us, but initially I didn’t see any attraction. More tragedy than victory in the buildings, as far as I was concerned. Some sort of civic boosterism had paid for a series of criminally awful murals depicting the town’s history. Generally it just felt a little sad. Part of Kar Wai’s genius is seeing beauty where others don’t, however, and he seemed to be a little captivated by this town.

    The place that initially caught his attention was a dive bar called the Liberty Club. It was a pretty great little dive with a hundred years or so of history to it. We stumbled upon and into it right around lunchtime. The bar was manned by a grizzled old lady bartender who would have looked just as comfortable in any 8th Avenue joint in New York as she did at The Liberty. The sole customer was a cowboy sitting at the bar enjoying a beer.

    By cowboy, I mean the real deal, an honest-to-God horse-riding, calf-roping Marlboro man-type cowhand from the Rio Grande. Men can have all sorts of issues dealing with other men at times, and this is a perfect example of such. I like to think I’m a pretty tough guy, I’ll admit. Been through all sorts of tussles and scrapes and always come out all right. Drop me on any street in any city and I’ll clock the action in front of and behind the scenes right away. I can score drugs in a dozen countries, throw and take a good punch, tell you which guys in a bar are strapped and instinctively know who can be pushed and who can’t. Put me in a room with a guy like this, however, and I’m flummoxed.

    How do you define your masculinity when you’re dealing with a guy who really works the land? City tough isn’t the same as country tough in the end. Also, I pride myself on my ability to relate to almost anyone but was at a total loss due to the utter foreignness of his vocation. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to converse about. Hey, how you like the new Ford pickup? Feels weird for me to be at a total loss like that. Doesn’t help that guys like that are usually reticent to begin with, either.

    We took some pictures but didn’t get far with the social game. The bartender was drunk and a little crazy and the cowboy was quiet. Kar Wai was also curious about him and eager to get some local color from the fellow but failed even more spectacularly than I had. Taking a page from my playbook he offered to buy a round for the bar. The bartender had hers inside her practically before he finished speaking. I reluctantly put my whiskey back. The cowboy refused the offer. The whole scene felt a little awkward and weird so we soon took our leave. I could now see how Kar Wai was fascinated with this place. There were stories here that we needed to know so we could improve them and make them our own.

    While there were very few restaurants there was no shortage of bars. We popped in and out of most of them that early afternoon. Outside of the Liberty they were all awful. Nothing you couldn’t find in a strip mall in Phoenix. That first whiskey had not treated me overly well given the previous night so I made an effort to avoid any more as we scouted. Though I didn’t see anyone obviously tweaking, the town seemed to give off a pretty strong meth vibe. All things considered, I was ready to get the hell out of Dodge, unheard stories notwithstanding. Kar Wai held firm however, so we went on exploring.



    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.

  • March 16, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Ma Ma

    by Sam Hutchins

    The liquor store looked like a possible Kar Wai location. It was a gas station built for the original blue line highways that predated the interstate system. Better, it had been sloppily and gaudily repurposed with no historical regard, and even had its own fleabag motel out back. Perhaps the perfect Kar Wai honeypot.

    Walking in, we were engulfed by the hurricane that was Ma Ma. She was a Korean woman of a certain age. Of what age I am not certain, but let’s say 60 would be a conservative guess. A guess which would be the last acquaintance we would have with the concept of “conservative” that morning. She wore a tightly fit black velvet top over leopard skin stretch pants. Chunky black Cha-Cha heels and a yellow silk scarf completed the look. Her personality was even more outgoing than her garb.

    “Hey, what you doing here, Chinese man? You want some tea? Hahaha.”

    Kar wai warmed up to her like he very rarely does with a person.

    “I would, thank you very much. Actually, if you just have some hot water, I would like to serve you a special tea I brought from Hong Kong.”

    “Yee-haa, that sounds good! Tell you what, you do that and I’ll make you some noodles I have special from Korea.”

    “Oh, very good. I have not had breakfast yet.”

    “Come, come. I make for you. No charge! Hahahaha!”

    Everything she said was enunciated as a borderline yell, particularly this last bit. It was punctuated by her cackling laughter, as was every other sentence or so that came out of her mouth. She nodded at me.

    “None for him, though. He too fat!”

    “Don’t worry, he hates Asian food,” Kar Wai said of me. How did he get that idea?

    “He should eat some noodles, maybe not be so fat. Hahahahaha!”

    “I would like some, if that ees okay,” Darius chimed in.

    “No noodles for you. Only noodles for handsome here.” She nodded at Kar Wai.

    I started to ask her about taking pictures but Kar Wai cut me off and discreetly shook his head no. I suppose the interior wasn’t that great. White pegboard covered the walls and it was overly bright. Still, it seemed like his sort of place. I wandered outside and took pictures of the mountains, but the view was largely blocked by scattered ugly buildings. A billiard hall, a dusty furniture store, that sort of thing. Nothing with the slightest bit of character aside from Ma Ma’s liquor store.

    When I stepped back in, Ma Ma had Kar Wai cornered. She was haranguing him about filming in her place. He had gone from warm to obviously uncomfortable. I did my duty and stepped in.

    “We can’t shoot here, Ma Ma. You’re too sexy, you’ll make the starlets jealous.”

    “Hahaha, you bullshit me. I no sexy, I no want to be in movie. I want you to film here, pay me lots of money, hahahaha!”

    “Okay, the place looks great, but we have other places to see. Besides, we really don’t have much money.”

    “Make me offer, hahaha!”

    She really had Kar Wai pinned in the corner. I had to take her arm and pull her away so he could slip past. As soon as he had a clear path to the door he stepped quickly towards it. He called over his shoulder as he left.

    “Thanks for the noodles, Ma Ma, they were very tasty. See you soon.”

    She wasn’t done yet.

    “Anything you want, I can get you.” She winked lustily. “Anything.”

    My God. Even as we pulled away in the truck she stood on the sidewalk yelling and cackling at us.

    “When you come back hahaha? I be here waiting hahaha! Plenty more noodles for you! Make you a good deal!”

    I checked the rear view to make sure she wasn’t running down the street after us. Seeing our escape was successful I put the big question to Kar Wai.

    “So, we filming there?”

    “Location is great, but she is too much too handle.” He gave it a long pause. “Maybe when we film there we say Stephane is the Director.”

    We all had a nice laugh and that broke the tension between Stephane and Kar Wai.

    I love history, and read it voraciously. A few years ago while reading one of Ambrose’s oral histories of World War II I came across an absolutely amazing story. In the mop-up operations after D-Day American soldiers were registering German prisoners. I forget which beach it was, but it was someplace where Hitler had been certain would not be a landing site. The soldiers there were the dregs of the Wermacht. Amongst them were a few Korean men who did not speak a word of German, let alone English. Subsequent investigation revealed that they had fought the Japanese, been captured and impressed to fight for the Emperor. As Japanese conscripts they fought the Russians, were captured, and agreed to fight the Germans. The Germans captured them and shipped them all the way west were they wound up in a pillbox defending the Continent. I imagined Ma Ma had arrived here by some equally strange chain of events. She was clearly a survivor. What forces of history had washed her up on this mountain where we found her? I pondered this as we descended into the mountain basin where Ely proper sat.



    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.

  • March 15, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Diner Movies

    by John Farr

    Movies set in diners.

    The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)


    Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) rolls into a roadside diner and meets portly, good-natured owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), who offers him a job as a fix-it man. Frank’s not too interested until he gets a look at Nick’s white-hot wife, Cora (Lana Turner), a smoldering beauty trapped in a dead-end existence. Almost immediately, they become passionate, obsessive lovers, and matter-of-factly hatch a plan to get rid of Nick-for good.


    Tay Garnett’s sizzling “Postman,” adapted from the pulp novel by James M. Cain, concerns fate, temptation, and the kind of irrational urges that drive people to murder. A gorgeous Lana Turner bewitches as the femme fatale, and enigmatic, underrated actor John Garfield plays the regular Joe who falls into her clutches. Garnett’s direction is solid and tantalizingly suggestive, as when Frank spots a lipstick rolling across the floor moments before he lays eyes on Cora. Garnett’s “Postman” delivers the goods.

    Five Easy Pieces (1970)


    Disaffected, hard-drinking oil rigger Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is not what he appears at first sight: Born into a patrician clan from Puget Sound, Bobby has turned his back on bourgeois comforts and a promising career as a classical pianist for life on the road with dim-witted girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Bobby’s drawn back into the family fold, however, when he learns his father Nicholas (William Challee) is dying.


    One of the definitive, highly acclaimed films of the early-70’s New American Cinema, Bob Rafelson’s edgy, deep character study features complex and courageous performances from both Nicholson and Black. As an existentially pained outcast of upper-middle-class breeding, Jack’s pent-up Bobby is especially absorbing to watch, as he denigrates Rayette’s crass singing efforts or spars with a waitress over the vagaries of a chicken-salad sandwich. A moody portrait of alienation and unresolved pain, Rafelson’s Oscar-nominated “Pieces” will stick with you.

    Diner (1982)


    Levinson’s break-through movie takes us back to Baltimore, 1959, and into the lives of several high-school pals adjusting to young adulthood. The group includes Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), nervous about an upcoming marriage, Shrevie and Beth (Daniel Stern and Ellen Barkin), who’ve taken the plunge and are having a rough patch, Tim, a boozing rich kid (Kevin Bacon), and Boogie (Mickey Rourke), a sweet-natured guy with a gambling problem. The diner is their mainstay, the place they convene to break bread and discuss the issues of the day. Around this sanctuary we track their individual struggles, and with them, take comfort that whatever happens, there’s always the diner.


    Levinson’s vivid, heartfelt ensemble comedy provided an outstanding showcase for up-and-comers Rourke, Stern, Guttenberg, Barkin, and Bacon. The script is funny and knowing, and the natural, often overlapping flow of dialogue gives off the authentic feel of improvisation. Levinson recreates the city of his youth with loving detail. A rich human comedy with a big heart.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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