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  • December 21, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Other Pictures in Paris

    by John Farr

    John Farr travels to Paris in search of fine films.


    Ninotchka (1939)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Greta Garbo’s first comedy, “Ninotchka” details what can happen-on a purely human, emotional level-when communism and capitalism collide. Three Russian comrades travel to Paris to sell an invaluable necklace with proceeds to benefit the party. The necklace’s rightful owner, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) prevails on Count Leon D’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to restore the necklace to her. The Count blocks the sale and distracts the three Russians with all the capitalistic excesses Paris has to offer. When Moscow notes the delay, they send tough emissary Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to move things along. When the cold but impossibly beautiful agent arrives in Paris and meets the Count, he realizes his mission has become much more challenging, but more interesting as well.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “Garbo Laughs!” screamed the publicity, and so will you (laugh, not scream). Director Ernst Lubitsch infuses this gossamer “East meets West” romance with his trademark chic style and clever sophistication. Garbo’s transformation from icy harridan to warm, alluring female is a wonder to behold, and Douglas is understated and suitably wry as the Count, never stepping in Garbo’s light too much. With a peerless script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, this is the movie equivalent to champagne, and, of course, caviar. (Trivia note: this picture was remade as a musical for Fred Astaire: 1957’s “Silk Stockings”.


    Last Tango in Paris (1972)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    While apartment-hunting in Paris, sultry 20-year-old Jeanne (Maria Schneider) meets Paul (Marlon Brando), a brooding middle-aged American whose wife has recently committed suicide for reasons he cannot fathom. Within minutes, they make love in the empty flat, a desolate place that becomes their temple of carnality, but with strict rules established by Paul.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scandalous in 1972 and still unsettling today, Bernardo Bertolucci’s bizarre, fascinating psychodrama depicts sex not as a union of two human beings, but as a reflection of their alienation from each other. While the butter scene is justly famous, this isn’t the only reason “Tango” stays with you. Just watch Brando closely here: at certain moments you catch a glimpse of that fiery young man in the ripped tee-shirt, railing against the world’s injustices, down but never out, and utterly, brilliantly alive. (Trivia note: reportedly, to build a feeling of spontaneity, Brando would improvise his own lines the day before shooting a scene. In many instances, Paul’s memories of childhood are Brando’s.)


    Ronin (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sam (Robert De Niro), a veteran intelligence agent, joins a covert team for a lucrative assignment to seize a suitcase whose mysterious contents are coveted by both the Russian mafia and the IRA. This simple premise develops into countless twists and turns, double- and triple-crosses, along with some car chase sequences worthy of “Bullitt” and “The French Connection”.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Late director John Frankenheimer takes a boilerplate idea and milks it for all its worth, creating a tight, pounding thriller. Casting and performances are solid, but this truly is a director’s picture, with Frankenheimer’s keen sense of pacing and flavorful European locations contributing to an edge-of-your-seat experience.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • December 21, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Holly & Billy Bob’s Oscar Nods

    by John Farr

    John Farr pays tribute to the unlikely Academy successes of Holly Hunter and Billy Bob Thornton.


    The Piano (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter), mute since childhood, travels with young, precocious daughter Flora (Paquin) to a remote part of New Zealand to wed icy farmer Stewart (Sam Neill). A ferociously talented pianist, Ada soon agrees to give music lessons to George Baines (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman living among Maoris, in exchange for his housing the piano her husband would not let her keep, and a strange, erotic passion slowly begins to consume them.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Set in the 19th century, Jane Campion’s brilliant period tale “The Piano” was rightly lauded in 1993 for its eccentric storyline and otherworldly, dreamlike atmosphere. Despite never uttering a word, Oscar winner Hunter exudes intelligence and determination as the rebellious Ada, along with a repressed yet combustible sensuality. Anna Paquin is a marvel in her debut, exemplifying the mix of spunk and knowingness that made her a sought-after young star. Visually ravishing and exquisite, “The Piano” is Campion’s visually poetic ode to our unspoken emotions.


    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.


    A Simple Plan (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After stumbling across the wreckage of a small plane in the woods containing a dead pilot and millions in cash, sensible accountant Hank (Bill Paxton) orders his dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and their dissolute pal Lou (Brent Briscoe) to keep the money hidden for a year so as to curb the suspicion of drug dealers who’ll no doubt come looking for their loot. But simple plans, like decent people, have a funny way of going very, very wrong.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    What would you do if you found $4 million, with no one around to claim it? That’s the basic premise of this absorbing Midwestern crime thriller by “Spiderman” director Raimi. “Plan” is as much a study in the poisonous effects of greed as it is a dark-comic twist on the get-rich-quick genre, and Raimi prises splendid acting from his talented cast, especially Thornton (few play the backwoods idiot as well as he) and Fonda, who as Hank’s wife turns from an innocuous, slightly nervous third party into a cold-blooded deviant at the promise of so much lucre. Neo-noir at its best.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • December 17, 2009

    A Scouting Life: A Piece of the Story

    by Sam Hutchins

    I opened up the script with the highest of expectations. To my surprise, it wasn’t a script at all. Instead I had been given a short story. The cultural dissonance was so great with the Chinese that I wasn’t quite sure where the disconnect was. Kar Wai famously does not shoot with scripts. Does he shoot based on short stories? Asking him would be useless as I knew in response all I would get was a smile and silence. So I plunged ahead with my reading assignment.

    It was a very strange story. I recognized the character of the Waitress, who would be played by Norah. This particular segment must be meant to fall roughly in the middle of the film, as it takes place somewhere in the West. Kar Wai must have been working off of our photos of the wide-open desert spaces we had provided, as he had never been there himself. The story concerned Norah waiting tables in an attempt to save enough cash to buy a car. She meets a customer who arrives on foot, pushing a baby carriage full of his belongings. He is very wise and even more mysterious. Ultimately he helps her understand a car is not the important thing, and that she should focus on what is truly important to her. They sleep together, which she regrets. He then disappears in the night having taught her an important lesson. The whole thing was highly existential and dreamlike.

    I hadn’t the slightest idea where to begin with my critique. The dialogue was indeed unnatural, however so was everything else about the tale. Rewriting it to make the characters sound more natural or realistic would contradict the tone and meaning of the story. I wrestled with it for days and ultimately made very minor changes. I primarily worried about grammar, proper tenses and the like, leaving the content alone in all other ways. My advice to any filmmaker would have been to throw the whole story out and start anew. Any filmmaker but Wong Kar Wai, that is. As wrong as the whole thing read on paper in his hands it would most likely work well. My only concern was whether or not his unique style of storytelling would work when set in America.

    I met with Kar Wai and Stephane to discuss my notes. They accepted them gratefully. It was clear that we had a middle chapter to our story but we needed a bridge to get us there.

    “What city made the greatest impact on you?” Kar Wai wanted to know.

    To my great surprise Stephane and I finally agreed on something.

    “Memphis.”

    We pulled our photos of Memphis and reviewed them with Kar Wai. There was rich territory to be mined there. It was a city with plenty of soul. It took very little convincing for Kar Wai to agree. Very well, then, we began making plans to return to Memphis. Darius was in Paris but would meet us on the road. I approached our Production Supervisor and told her we needed to make some travel arrangements.

    “Memphis? Seriously? I though this film was shutting down? I already laid off my staff.”

    I told her that I had been under the same impression, but apparently had been wrong. Patty went in to speak with Kar Wai and returned shortly.

    “He wants me to book you tickets to Chicago.”

    Now it was my turn to be puzzled. I went back to speak to Kar Wai.

    “I thought we were going to Memphis.”

    “We are.”

    “Patty thinks we are going to Chicago.”

    “We are.”

    I stood for a painfully long time awaiting further explanation but got none. I’m pretty sure he forgot I was in his office.

    “So what do I do?” Patty wanted to know.

    “Book us flights to Chicago. I guess we’ll start there and drive to Memphis.”

    I still really hadn’t figured this guy out, but at least working with him was always interesting.

    ….

    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.

  • December 14, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: (Early) Worthy Wyler

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three films from legend William Wyler’s early oeuvre.


    Counsellor at Law (1933)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Perched high atop New York in his law office, attorney George Simon (John Barrymore) runs a busy, lucrative practice handling or rather, manhandling – a dizzying array of high-profile cases. GS, as he is known to his staff, may run with (and occasionally bilk) the rich and powerful, but he also remembers his roots as an immigrant toiling on the streets of Greenwich Village, something his status-conscious socialite wife, Cora (Doris Kenyon), seems almost ashamed of. When George is faced with disbarment for an incident of misconduct in his past, his high and mighty world is turned upside-down.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    William Wyler’s engrossing, head-spinning drama features Barrymore in a knockout role as a hotshot attorney with a formidable track record, a notable penchant for hard-luck cases, and a fawning softness for his well-to-do wife, whose affection does not seem nearly so unconditional. As a series of mini dramas play out around Simon- involving agonized clients from the old neighborhood, interactions among his chirpy young staff, and the unspoken, unrequited love of faithful secretary Regina (Daniels), “Counsellor” inexorably builds to a tense climax. Filled with vivid performances by a slew of fine character actors, “Counsellor” is a rapid-fire drama of class and privilege, love and lucre.


    Dodsworth (1936)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a business tycoon, decides to retire and take an extended trip to Europe with wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Unfortunately, Sam’s financial success has only increased Fran’s latent vanity and social-climbing tendencies. No longer distracted by his work, Sam sees his wife’s weaknesses for the first time, as she openly flirts and cavorts with a European aristocrat. Sam must confront the problem in his marriage, then find a way to regain some happiness for himself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Director William Wyler and screenwriter Sydney Howard have crafted an adult, perceptive romantic drama, beautifully played. They wisely minimize the soapiness inherent in the premise, leaving an honest and surprisingly moving film about love lost and re-discovered. The Oscar-nominated Huston is superb.


    Jezebel (1938)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is a willful New Orleans belle engaged to banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) in the antebellum South. Julie is also needy and manipulative, which soon drives Pres away. He later returns with a wife, which foils Julie’s plans for a reconciliation. After finding new ways to cause mischief among the menfolk, Julie seizes one final chance to redeem herself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “Jezebel” was Davis’s consolation prize for not landing the part of Scarlett O’Hara. Inevitably compared to “Gone With the Wind” (released one year later), this lavish melodrama stands on its own, thanks to Wyler’s expert direction and his camera’s loving attention to Warners’ biggest female star. Davis, who nabbed her second best actress Oscar for this, is superb and looks glorious, while Fonda is suitably restrained as Pres. Don’t miss the famous scene at the ball.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • December 14, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Twenty-Something Romantic Angst

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Mutual Appreciation, you might also enjoy these great films about twenty-something romance:


    Before Sunrise (1995)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Making his way to Vienna to catch a cheap flight home, 20-something American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) chats up Celine (Julie Delpy), a student at the Sorbonne, on a Eurail train and finds they have a lot in common. When they arrive at his station, Jesse proposes that Celine disembark with him in Vienna and keep him company until his plane leaves the next morning. Impetuously, she agrees, and together they embark on a brief but unforgettable adventure.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This intelligent and unconventional tale of talky romance borrows something from the work of French auteur Eric Rohmer, but “Dazed and Confused” director Linklater – a master of meandering conversation – puts his own stamp on the character-driven drama with searching, tone-perfect dialogue. As the two wander the streets discussing love and sex, history and politics, Hawke and Delpy make attractive kindred spirits whose youthful, sometimes argumentative exchanges really seem to echo life. Despite the R rating, “Sunrise” is an ideal film for teens, as it captures a sense of life’s wondrous possibilities.


    High Fidelity (2000)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Chicago record-shop owner Rob (John Cusack) finds himself examining the sorry state of his obsessive, audiophile lifestyle when his lawyer girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), decides she needs more from Rob than the scruffy, thirty-something vinyl fetishist is willing to give. Dejected, Rob starts looking up ex-girlfriends and inquiring about his serial faults, while Laura hooks up with his supersensitive, dunder-head neighbor, Ian (Tim Robbins). Can Rob win her back?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Frears’s surprisingly insightful film, adapted from the Nick Hornby novel, examines the comic romantic entanglements of a lovable music-store geek. His record stacks and Top Five lists may be in perfect order, but his love life is a shambles, and Cusack plays the part with shaggy-dog affection. Aside from solid direction and a great soundtrack, the other selling point here is the supporting cast, in particular Jack Black as a crass, super-snobby record nerd and Robbins as a New Age devotee. High Fidelity hits a steady, heartfelt groove that will keep you in stitches.


    Regular Lovers (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In the heady days of May 68 in Paris, 20-year-old poet Francois (Louis Garrel) flees the riot cops on the Night of the Barricades and holes up at the flat of opium-smoking bohemian Antoine (Julien Lucas), who houses young artists, druggies, and hangers-on. There, Francois meets free-spirited sculptor Lilie (Hesme), and falls deeply in love. But as the nature of the revolution changes, so does their idealistic and blissful romance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This hypnotic, visually ravishing homage to the spirit of ’68 is an autobiographical tour de force by critically acclaimed French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, who cast his own son as Francois, modeled after his youthful self. Instead of memorializing or sentimentalizing the time, Garrel re-creates the mood of rebellion and youthful vigor in the first half, then allows the story-like the radical political movement itself-to drift into dissolution and disappointment. Garrel’s son Louis is superb as the cerebral, easygoing Francois, and Hesme refreshingly pure as the object of his love and esteem. Beautifully lensed in rich black and white, “Lovers” is a uniquely personal film, a love poem to a utopian moment destined to pass.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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