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  • December 7, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Lee J. Cobb

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three films featuring the inimitable Lee J. Cobb.


    Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The true story of an Englishwoman who tutored the King Of Siam’s large family in the mid-19th century, the film traces the unusual relationship that evolves between principled teacher Anna (Irene Dunne), and the irascible but not unkind King (Rex Harrison).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This sumptuous film boasts gorgeous sets, a clever, touching script, and charismatic playing from stars Harrison and Dunne. Also check out young Cobb in an unusual character role. Well-paced and richly rewarding.


    12 Angry Men (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A young man is accused of murder, and as the jury deliberates on a verdict, only one juror (Peter Fonda) holds out for acquittal, causing frustration among the majority. The advocate for reasonable doubt gets under the skin of one particular juror (Lee J. Cobb), whose belief in the man’s guilt is tinged with an underlying anger. As deliberations continue, the pendulum gradually begins to move in the other direction. Still, reaching a unanimous verdict will pose an enormous challenge.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Sidney Lumet’s first feature film is a spare, powerful human drama of the first order. Fonda has never been better as the voice of reason, and his fellow jurors are played by some of the best character actors of the day, including Jack Warden, E.G Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Jack Klugman. Finally, as Fonda’s nemesis, Cobb projects the savage fury of a man too often wronged, a victim of his own blinding ignorance. A big triumph made on a small budget.


    The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Narrated by Alistair Cooke in a pseudo-documentary style, film tells the story of Eve White (Joanne Woodward), a Georgia housewife who visits psychiatrist Dr. Luther (Lee J. Cobb) to seek treatment for headaches and blackouts. Her husband, Ralph (David Wayne), thinks Eve’s faking her ills, but the shrink soon discovers she has multiple-personality disorder, and begins a variety of therapies to merge her three “faces.”

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on an actual case, “Eve” is a distant precursor to the TV drama “Sybil” (also featuring Joanne Woodward) and broke new ground in Hollywood’s treatment of mental illness, while also taking a hard look at prescribed gender roles for women in the 1950s. Few actresses have made a more impressive acting debut than Woodward, starring opposite veteran Cobb, especially since she had three roles to juggle: a dowdy Southern housewife, a libertine, and a pragmatic, cultured woman. She brought off this complex, nuanced characterization with such finesse that she walked away with a Best Actress Oscar.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • December 7, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Movies about Music

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends movies about music and musicians.


    Amadeus (1984)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Told in flashback by aged 18th-century Viennese composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), now confined to an asylum, this drama unveils the rivalry that developed 30 years before between Salieri and 26-year-old music prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), who quickly gains the favor of Joseph II of Austria (Jeffrey Jones). Livid that a vulgar, silly man could be blessed with such talent, the jealous Salieri plots a foolproof way to destroy the gifted composer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A marvelously acted, flawlessly directed story about jealousy, obsession, and perfectionism, Forman’s stunning “Amadeus” mixes suspenseful drama with historical fact to create a winning fictional biography. The lead actors inhabit their roles with gusto, with Hulce’s crass talent playing off Abraham’s guileful Salieri with great results. Neville Marriner brings Mozart’s music to vigorous life. Winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Abraham), “Amadeus” is a triumph that will delight anyone with a soft spot for cracked genius.


    Shine (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    True story of piano prodigy David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush), whose abuse suffered at the hands of his disturbed, exacting father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) only aggravates a precarious emotional state. Eventually, his affliction catches up with a promising concert career, but David has unexpected reserves that eventually allow him to find a fulfilling life-and even love.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Involving, stunningly executed feature benefits from a smart, knowing script and an astonishing, Oscar winning performance by Rush as the adult David. (Noah Taylor also excels playing Helfgott as an adolescent). Mueller-Stahl makes your skin crawl as the haunted father. An often harrowing tale that ends on an uplifting, inspirational note.


    Almost Famous (2000)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Against the wishes of wary mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), aspiring teenage music journalist William (Fugit) takes a plum assignment from Rolling Stone to cover the latest tour of his favorite rock band, Stillwater. On the road, 15-year-old William befriends lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), who keeps promising him a juicy interview, and falls for “band aid” (i.e. groupie) Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who’s barely older than William himself.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Set in the early 1970s, and based on actual events in the life of writer-director Cameron Crowe – once an underage Rolling Stone scribe himself – “Almost Famous” is a beautifully observed coming-of-age drama that captures the spirit of an era with soulful warmth and bittersweet insight. Crudup, McDormand, Hudson, and wide-eyed newcomer Fugit all deliver vivid, well-rounded performances, while a brief early appearance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as real-life gonzo critic Lester Bangs remains indelible. Crowe’s songs of innocence and experience will rock your world.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • December 4, 2009

    A Scouting Life: A Private Movie

    by Sam Hutchins

    We woke up the next morning to find Cleveland absolutely buried in snow. We returned to the flats, exploring some more of the areas immediately around the old factories. Kar Wai really did love the visuals the area offered us. This made me quite happy, as we were returning to the site of many of my youthful indiscretions. Kar Wai has elements of the instigator, voyeur and provocateur in him as most film directors do. He clearly enjoyed hearing stories of my misbehavior and I had plenty to share. I pointed out a few of the punk clubs where I had spent my adolescence drinking underage and attempting to get over on goth chicks.

    The snow was fairly heavy on the ground and we were moving slow. Tuning in to the forecast we heard that a front was coming in rapidly and driving out of town that evening would be difficult. For the first time we really suffered for Stephane’s absence. For all his difficulties he was at heart a good guy, and the one voice that Kar Wai always listened to. Stephane was typically the one who decided when to stick around and when to leave. As our journey had no real plan I would typically provide a few options for our next destination, Stephane would advocate one and Kar Wai would agree. Without him it became a true group discussion.

    Ultimately we decided to ride the storm out in Cleveland. We all liked the hotel, I knew my way around, and there was no need to drive through a blizzard. We made the decision over dim sum in one of my stepmother’s favorite restaurants. Kar Wai very graciously asked me to invite my parents but by the time I reached them Dad was already out fishing so the three of us went it alone. Despite eating Chinese a little too frequently for my liking, eating it with Kar Wai was a unique experience. We wound up massively over-ordering every bun, dumpling and noodle in the place as Kar Wai got rather expansive. Followed up the dim sum with a whole steamed bass and some beers as he opened up about his family. He told of the joy in having his son, who he named “Whale” after having a dream about one the night before his birth.

    The day slipped into an odd feeling of limbo. No one was discussing whatever problem it was that had taken Stephane from us but it was obviously financial in nature. Normally we ate rapidly and resumed scouting, but this day we lingered. The storm was moving in quickly and the world in and around us felt a little empty. It seemed our long journey may be coming to an end, and that it may have been for naught. We returned to the Renaissance instead of scouting further and settled in to while away the afternoon in the lobby bar. Earlier in the trip Darius and Stephane had gone to great pains to point out that the journey itself was as important as the destination. That evening in the bar certainly made their point. The three of us had the bar to ourselves. We sat and slowly drank the day away, watching the snow fall on downtown Cleveland. We talked movies, books, love and life.

    Both Kar Wai and Darius are happily married and have children. That doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a pretty woman, however. The waitress was exactly that. A buxom redhead, she caught all of our eyes as she passed back and forth serving the few other customers out in the lobby. It wasn’t long before Kar Wai started egging me on, challenging me to try picking her up. He really was devilish at times. I wasn’t rising to the bait until Darius chimed in, stating that he didn’t believe I could do it anyway. The two of them began discussing the terms of a possible bet. I was so very, very tired from the trip and slightly uncomfortable with the direction things were going. I decided to put an end to this the most direct way. Catching the waitresses attention, I waved her over to my side.

    “Excuse me, miss, but I’ve been on the road with these two guys for weeks scouting a movie. It’s been a long time since I spent any time with a pretty woman. Any chance you and I could grab a quiet drink somewhere when your shift is over? I just want to have a nice chat. I’d enjoy your company.”

    “Sure, that would be great. Only thing is we aren’t allowed to date customers. Slip me your number and I’ll call you when I’m done. Should be about an hour.”

    I turned back to my companions. Darius was still proposing possible bets but Kar Wai had seen what just happened.

    “Nice work, Sam,” smiled Kar Wai.

    “What did you say? What did she say?” asked Darius. So indicative of the man he is. Darius is like that funny uncle who is always a step behind. “What are you going to do?”

    “We’ll just grab a drink somewhere.”

    “You know what you should do? Just take her to your room. We’ll hide in the closet and watch.”

    Darius was kidding, but not really.

    “Yes, that would be funny. We could take pictures.”

    Wow, Kar Wai, too?

    They went back and forth with it for a while, and I really think they were serious. They started laying out elaborate plans to watch, and even photograph us, secretly. Some combination of the booze, the weather, the job seemingly collapsing and no small measure of inherent perversity was taking things in a very strange direction. I did my best to treat it all as a joke but I wasn’t getting off the hook that easily. What to do? I sipped my whiskey as two brilliant filmmakers discussed the logistics of me and the waitress starring in a private movie.

    ….

    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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  • November 30, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Emotional Resonance

    by Sam Hutchins

    Shortly thereafter Darius and Kar Wai exited the hotel and hopped in the truck. I was relieved to see them both emerge sans suitcases. Clearly there were problems getting the picture off the ground. Most of my experience was working for the major studios; what I did know about independent films was that financing was often an issue. I loved Kar Wai’s work but I was not putting up the money to finance it. I can’t imagine committing large sums of money to a director who works without a script or a clearly defined story, yet Kar Wai refuses to do it any other way. I wouldn’t be surprised if this thing fell apart at any time. For now, however, it appeared that we were still moving forward.

    “Everything OK guys? What happened to Stephane?”

    “He went back to New York.”

    Remind me never to play poker with Wong Kar Wai. We started out cruising the near West Side. It was in some ways harder to scout a town I knew so well than a strange city. Too much emotional resonance involved. As I struggled with what I ought to show him, Kar Wai pointed and told me to stop. We were at a great old dive, a 24-hour hot dog stand in a shitty neighborhood called Steve’s. I had ended many late nights of drinking in the spot but honestly never would have thought to take him there specifically. In retrospect it was a perfect location for him. We entered and sat at the counter.

    “What would you usually have here?”

    “A couple chili dogs with cheese, onions and mustard.”

    “OK, I’ll have that.”

    “Kar Wai, we don’t usually eat these at ten on a Sunday morning.”

    As usual I received that blank stare in return, so I ordered up for both of us. Darius, who appreciated the finer things in life, looked at us like we were pissing on the carpet. He settled for a cup of black coffee. We sat and enjoyed our breakfast alongside a couple guys from the Coast Guard and a middle-aged heavyset woman from the adjoining housing projects. Kar Wai smiled the entire time. As we left he turned to me.

    “A place that feels like this is good. This is the feeling we should look for.”

    My God, I’ll never be able to figure this guy out. Directors give you many different clues when you scout. Phillip Noyce tells you what lens he’s shooting and where he wants to put the camera. Donald Petrie looks for the best place to play the comedy. Mike Nichols cares about the appropriate class level. Those are tangible, measureable things. Scouting based on the proper emotional resonance of a place is a different matter entirely. As soon as I thought I had a handle on Kar Wai he would say something that just lost me.

    Leaving Steve’s we headed down to The Flats, which is the industrial area bordering the Cuyahoga River on the edge of downtown Cleveland. It was one of the rare times I knew I was showing him something he would like and I was right. The towering highway overpasses, the dirty gray factories and various detritus left behind by the steel industry framing the downtown skyline were ideally suited to his work. My only concern was that there was no actual restaurant or bar to set scenes in. After thoroughly exploring the area he chose a spot on the side of the road that he liked.

    “Kar Wai, what kind of scene would we set here?”

    “Those trucks that pull up and serve food, would one ever park here?”

    “Sure, they park in places like this to feed the guys who work at the mill.”

    “Can we get one of those?”

    “Yeah, we can rent one and put it here.”

    “Good. Very good.”

    As we were shooting the area a local Sherriff’s Deputy pulled over and checked us out. 9/11 and the advent of homeland security really had changed things. Fortunately I carry enough PBA cards and know the right things to say. As he pulled out another car pulled in, this one driven by what seemed to be a steelworker or possibly security from the steel mill.

    “What you guys doing?”

    “Sorry, sir, we’re just scouting for a film…”

    “I can see that. Who is the director?” Not what I expected to hear.

    “You wouldn’t know him, he’s a Chinese…”

    “Holy shit, is that Wong Kar Wai?” Definitely not what I expected to hear. The guy hopped out and we all had a nice chat. The world really is a small place sometimes. Standing under an overpass hard by the steel mills on a Sunday morning we meet someone conversant with Kar Wai’s work. Go figure. As we finished our chat and our photography the snow began to come down hard. Time to head back to the hotel.

    ….

    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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  • November 30, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Extra-Marital Movies

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three films for all you philanderers out there.


    Double Indemnity (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gorgeous schemer Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) enlists a besotted insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to draw up a life-insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge – and then kill him. The murder goes as planned, but the two lovers lose faith in each other’s motives when they face suspicious claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose queries trigger a fatal game of cat and mouse.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the quintessential noir films, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” is a masterpiece of stark atmosphere and carefully stylized suspense. The talented Barbara Stanwyck, a familiar face in the 1940s noir universe, assumes her role with feline deviousness, while “My Three Sons” TV dad Fred MacMurray – narrating the film via flashback – brilliantly plays against type. Raymond Chandler’s screenplay sizzles with hard-boiled repartee and the great Edward G. Robinson is aces as always as the dogged investigator hot on the lovers’ trail. Sinister, tense, and cynical, Wilder’s “Indemnity” is riveting film suspense.


    The World of Henry Orient (1964)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Two New York City schoolgirls develop a crush on the title character, a second-rate concert pianist and frustrated ladies’ man (Peter Sellers). They then decide to stalk the poor fellow, foiling his meticulously planned assignations.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Sellers is in rare form as the perpetually striving, but eternally mediocre fraud, Henry Orient. The two girls who pursue him (Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker) give refreshingly natural performances. Paula Prentiss is screamingly funny as one of Orient’s nervous paramours, while Angela Lansbury injects a cold note of evil as one girl’s mother. Beautiful on-location scenery of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.


    Fatal Attraction (1987)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Manhattan lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is happily married to his gorgeous wife Beth (Anne Archer), with whom he has a 6-year-old daughter. After a chance meeting with the sexy, intriguing Alex (Glenn Close) leads to a passionate two-night affair in her apartment, Dan says goodbye and means it. But Alex has no intention of giving up Dan – ever – and proceeds to turn the Gallaghers’ lives into an escalating nightmare.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adrian Lyne’s disturbing “Fatal Attraction” remains the ultimate cautionary tale for extra-marital thrill seekers. What begins as an entirely plausible drama about a one-night stand quickly morphs into a shocking psychological thriller in Lyne’s hands, with Douglas turning in one of the iconic performances of the 80s. But it’s Glenn Close’s bestial, unhinged villainess that made this film a box-office smash. Despite a tacked-on, slasher-movie-style ending, “Attraction” picked up six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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