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  • February 1, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Freeman’s Finest

    by John Farr

    A look at Morgan Freeman’s most memorable movies.

    Glory (1985)


    True story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), son of Massachusetts abolitionists, who’s appointed to lead the first black regiment for the Union in the Civil War. Before this group is able to prove their mettle in battle, Shaw must fight injustice within the Union hierarchy, as superior officers doubt the regiment’s ability to fight and seem unwilling (at first) to even equip them properly. Ultimately, Shaw’s faith in his men is borne out heroically.


    Edward Zwick’s vivid Civil War epic boasts terrific battle sequences, but aside from the story’s inherent fascination, what sets this movie apart are the incredible performances glimpsed in between the gunfire. Broderick brings to Shaw a nuanced mix of determination and vulnerability, but Denzel Washington virtually steals the picture as a defiant enlisted man. (He won an Oscar for this.) Morgan Freeman also shines as a wise, seasoned regimental sergeant. Both great entertainment and history lesson.

    Unforgiven (1992)


    A nasty customer in the western town of Big Whisky cuts up a prostitute. Unsatisfied with the local sheriff’s progress in the case, her colleagues offer a bounty for the culprit. Learning this, retired gunslinger Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) picks up his weapon once again, and old colleague Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) goes along for the ride.


    The craggy, mellowing Eastwood directs himself admirably in this first-class oater. It’s scenic, true to the period and includes excellent support from Freeman, Hackman and the late Richard Harris in a particularly showy role. With the dark and atmospheric “Unforgiven,” Eastwood carries on the western film tradition in winning style.

    The Shawshank Redemption (1994)


    Sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, former banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) keeps to himself at Shawshank Penitentiary, but that doesn’t always help protect him from the molestations of other inmates. Andy befriends fellow lifer Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), a man who knows how to procure forbidden items, and even begins to manage the warden’s finances in exchange for certain privileges. But as the years pass, Red discovers that Andy has something else on his mind besides comfort behind bars.


    Adapted from a Stephen King story, Darabont’s “Redemption” reinvigorates the prison-drama genre with a robust, deeply touching story about courage, friendship, and the persistence of hope amid the regimentation of life in the Big House. Robbins gives a masterful performance as the aloof, enigmatic inmate whom everyone-including the bulls-comes to respect. And Freeman brings his own Southern gentility to the role of Red, the wizened con whose bond with Andy takes him to a very unexpected place: the outside world.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • February 1, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Train Wrecks

    by John Farr

    No, John’s not recommending terrible films; these films all feature horrific train wrecks.

    The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


    Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a spit-and-polish British officer, endures a humiliating confinement in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, and is forced to lead the building of a bridge for the movement of Japanese materiel, a task which slowly begins to consume him, blurring his sense of allegiance. All the while we watch the relationship between him and the formal but civilized camp commandant (Sessue Hayakawa) evolve from outright hostility to something close to mutual respect. Ultimately, an American officer (William Holden) who knew Nicholson in the camp but has since escaped, is assigned to return and blow up the bridge.


    Based on a true story, this riveting war film, shot in Sri Lanka, represented a new career peak for director David Lean, who’d go on to shoot the monumental “Lawrence Of Arabia”. Top-notch acting (Guinness won an Oscar after initially turning down the role), authentic atmosphere and a brilliant script add up to grand adventure and powerful human drama. The whole ensemble cast is superb, notably Holden, Hayakawa, and the late, great Jack Hawkins.

    The Train (1964)


    Cold-blooded Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) wants to remove a a cache of priceless art from France by train in the waning days of the Nazi occupation. With the help of some gallant friends in the Resistance, railroad worker Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster) takes on the dangerous task of derailing this mission.


    John Frankenheimer’s pulse-pounding war film is lean and riveting, as Lancaster’s character works intrepidly to foil Von Waldheim’s exacting plans. Lancaster is restrained and no-nonsense as Labiche- thankfully he doesn’t even attempt a French accent, while Scofield is icy perfection as the ruthless Von Waldheim. This is one of my personal favorites from the sixties and ranks among the talented Frankenheimer’s best work.

    The Fugitive (1993)


    Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the 60’s TV series involves Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), a prominent Chicago doctor accused of murdering his wife. The jury doesn’t buy Kimble’s story about confronting a one-armed man in his apartment the night his wife was killed, and he is convicted. When Kimble escapes custody, he hunts the real culprit, and ace U.S Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) gets assigned to track him down. Will Gerard get to Kimble before the doctor can clear himself?


    A textbook example of a first-rate thriller, buoyed by Davis’s breathless pacing and a picture-stealing performance from Jones, who won an Oscar. Drawing from his Indiana Jones days, Ford is just right as the besieged hero always one step ahead of disaster, but Jones’s Gerard, whose drive is offset by a wry, folksy humor, is intensely charismatic as the intrepid hound-dog on Kimble’s trail. Over ten years after its initial release, it’s worth another peek if you haven’t seen it since. First-timers should definitely plunge.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • January 28, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Crimes and Misdemeanors on Elvis Presley Boulevard

    by Sam Hutchins

    We drove up and down Elvis Presley Boulevard several times without seeing anything we really liked. The motels were plentiful enough but not distinct in any way. The edge of a hangover and a gray sky had me in a dark mood. Things only got grimmer as a light rain started to fall. I found myself quoting Travis Bickle in my ongoing internal dialogue. What a depressing environment. Even Graceland looked pretty low-rent from the avenue. Countless notes and keepsakes had been affixed to the fence and left there to wither and die.

    We passed one place several times before it caught our eye. A gravel driveway zig-zagged up a hill, ending in a patchwork fence. The roadway was lined by the stumps of what must have been a dozen pretty substantial trees, and the scraggly tufts of grass were dying in the wet mud. It looked like a toxic waste dump more than anything else. There was no sign but if there were I imagine it would read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” We pulled in and made our way up to the fence more out of morbid curiosity than anything else. Pulling around the bend we found ourselves in a courtyard of what was indeed some sort of motel. Several ramshackle buildings formed a ring around the small lot, with a sign indicating that one of them was the office. Kar Wai smiled.

    “This is good. See if we can get in a room.”

    Hopping out of the truck I found myself grateful for the rain. At least it kept the rank smell down a bit. The scent was a mixture of mildew and despair. I made my way over to the battered screen door and knocked for a while. Eventually an emaciated looking Indian fellow opened up and motioned me in. He was cooking something that smelled beyond awful on a small hot plate and watching “I Love Lucy” on a black-and-white television. I started on in my standard spiel and got pretty far into it before I realized the smile on his face was one of total incomprehension. The phrase “grinning like an idiot” comes to mind.

    “Do you speak English?”

    Nothing. I held up my camera.

    “We take pictures. Photographs. Okay?”

    I pantomimed shooting pictures with the camera. Still nothing. Screw this, I couldn’t take the smell of the room any more. Dipping into my jacket pocket I fished out my police badge (how I acquired that is another story entirely).

    “Police. I’m going to need to take a look at one of your rooms.”

    Reaching past him I removed a numbered key from one of the hooks on the wall. He smiled even harder, if that was possible, and continued staring at me. I cleared out to head for the truck. Stepping into the lot I saw someone had gotten there before me.

    A tall, very skinny white woman dressed in a plaid schoolgirl type miniskirt was leaning in the window chatting with Darius. As I got closer it became clear that she was no stranger to meth. Christ, I can’t leave these guys alone for a second. I strode purposefully to her.

    “Beat it Sister, we don’t want any.”

    She took her time turning and giving me as nasty a look as I remember receiving before ambling away and back into her room.

    “What does thees mean, ‘Do I want a date?’” Darius asked through the open window. Between the rain and all the rest I was well out of patience.

    “It means she will let you stick your dick in her if you pay her money. She’s a hooker.”

    I felt bad when I saw that all three looked legitimately surprised, both at the tone and content of my statement. Trying to recover I held up the key.

    “C’mon, you want to see a room?”

    I found the shack that corresponded to the number on the key fob and let them in. The interior was just as nasty as the outside appearance would suggest. Of course Kar Wai loved it. As disgusting as the place was, I did appreciate him digging it, in a perverse way. The man certainly marches to his own drummer. And this was one of those so-ugly-it’s-almost-beautiful situations, sort of like Mimi Rogers. Kar Wai had Stephane pose in various positions while he photographed the room.

    “Something is missing here. Sam, can you get that woman back? I want her to model for me.”

    “The hooker? Really? Not sure she’ll go for it.”

    Blank stare.

    “She’ll want money.”

    “Fine, pay her.”

    I wondered just how the accounting department would feel about a receipt for the services of a meth-addled whore doing some stand-in work. Have to worry about that later. I went to fetch her.

    Stepping back out into the rain I realized I had no idea which room she had gone into. Orienting myself based on the truck’s position, I had a general idea but was not at all certain. There were four rooms in the direction she had gone. I took my best guess and went to the door. Leaning in I could hear a television blaring inside. Maybe I had it right. I banged away for quite some time before the door opened a crack. But it wasn’t the woman. Far from it, actually. Instead I was faced with a very big, very black, and very unhappy man. What the hell, might as well go for it.

    “Sorry to bother you pal. I’m looking for the woman who was just out here talking to us. Tall, thin gal, in a plaid skirt?”

    I put on my corniest smile when I spoke. He maintained his angry glare and said nothing. Absolute silence from him. At least he didn’t shut the door on me. I rolled right on with it, too late to stop now.

    “I work for a very famous filmmaker. Name’s Wong Kar Wai. Chinese fellow. We want to take some pictures of her. We’d be happy to pay her for her time.”

    I flashed a little green. This time he did shut the door on me. Slammed it, actually. I figured it was in my best interest not to pursue the matter any further. Still not sure if I was at the right room or not. It certainly wasn’t the woman who answered the door but he may well have been her business manager. In any case I’m simply not a dedicated enough employee to have bothered trying the other rooms. I returned to the guys and told them she wasn’t interested. Kar Wai and Darius seemed genuinely disappointed.

    “Will it help if I speak to her?” Darius helpfully volunteered.

    I was tempted for just a moment to send Darius to the door I had just knocked on. The comedy potential was there, but the possibility of him being shot several times also existed. I really like the man and that would be a terrible career move.

    “Noooo, she definitely is not interested.”

    We finished up in the room and packed our gear up. As we walked to the car another Indian gentleman approached me. This guy was both better dressed and fed than the guy I took the key from. He spoke passable English.

    “Excuse me, officer, is everything OK? I am the manager of the motel.”

    Heh, I’d forgotten what I’d done to get us access.

    “Yes, it’s fine. You passed inspection. You’ll receive a letter soon. Nice place you have here.”

    He beamed.

    “Why thank you, nice to hear. My employee is good to you?”

    “Yes, he was exceptionally helpful. Good man you have there.”

    “Thanks. His English is not so well but he will be learning.”

    As I got into the truck I couldn’t resist one last question. Waving my arm at the stumps that once were a dozen mighty oaks I put it to him.

    “What happened to the trees?”

    “Ah, leaves everywhere. And they blocked the view from the road. Much better without them.”

    I nodded my agreement and we went on our way.



    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.

  • January 26, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: On the Road

    by John Farr

    There are tons of road trip films out there; here are three you might have missed.

    Sullivan’s Travels (1941)


    John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful director of Hollywood fluff who decides he wants to make a serious picture about “real world” suffering. Disguising himself as a tramp, the earnest but naive Sullivan hits the road with a ridiculous entourage provided by his cynical studio bosses. Eventually, he meets a down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake) and learns the hard way how poverty dampens, but doesn’t extinguish, the human spirit.


    Widely considered the greatest of Sturges’s classic 1940s films, “Sullivan’s Travels” is a stunning hybrid, blending giddy slapstick and razor-sharp humor with grim, unblinking social realism. McCrea and Lake make a fun pair, comically and romantically, while Robert Greig is a hoot as Sullivan’s droll butler. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Sturges concocting this incisively scripted, beautifully directed Hollywood satire, which ultimately has a lot to say about the restorative power of laughter.

    Midnight Run (1988)


    Modern-day bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert DeNiro) has a colorful career, but nothing could prepare him for Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a mob accountant on the lam. It seems Jonathan embezzled a bundle from his crooked bosses, gave the money to charity, then managed to jump bail. Jack first embarasses the authorities by succeeding where they’ve failed: he nabs Jonathan. Now he’ll be amply compensated if he can get Jonathan from the east to the west coast in one piece. But given the long list of neuroses afflicting Jonathan, and with both the FBI and the mafia interested in meeting the sensitive money-man en-route, Jack will have to earn every penny.


    “Run” achieves ideal balance between comedy and action, creating pure, adrenalized entertainment. DeNiro and Grodin project surprisingly strong chemistry as polar opposites thrown together by fate. Their inspired interaction elevates the movie well above the standard “buddy” picture. Joe Pantoliano stands out as Jack’s nervous boss. Fast moving, cross-country fun.

    Transamerica (2005)


    Just a week before pre-operative transsexual Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman), formerly Stanley, is about go under the knife to complete her male-to-female transformation, she learns that she has a 17-year-old son named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who’s in trouble with the law. Encouraged by her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), to come to grips with her past, Bree bails Toby out of jail and takes him on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles.


    Expertly handled by first-time director Tucker, this funny, touching film belongs to a tradition of beautifully observed movies about nontraditional American families. Huffman is riveting to watch, especially in the scenes with her disapproving mother, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan). But it is her rapport with Zegers, perfect as the troubled, miserable Toby, that gives the film its heart and soul, especially as he believes Bree is a goody-goody church type-not his father. Their trip-so often the arc of growth in great road films-is mutually nourishing and eye-opening. Settle in with Transamerica for a frank, heartfelt outing.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • January 26, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Physical Transformations

    by John Farr

    Films with characters that require their actors to undergo eye-popping physical transformations.

    Little Big Man (1970)


    Arthur Penn’s incomparable western epic details the (fictional) reminiscences of Jack Crabb, the last remaining survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. The expansive story sounds more like the lives of ten men, as Jack gets adopted by Cheyenne Indians, then assimilates to white, and finally goes back and forth between the two races, while encountering Western characters Wild Bill Hickok and of course, General Custer himself.


    Part comedy, part stinging commentary on our treatment of the Indians, “Man” is a dazzling accomplishment, a vivid tapestry of all the opposing qualities that made the old west the basis of so many great movies. In a virtuoso turn, Hoffman plays Crabb from teenager to 121-year-old man, and early on, even gets a bath from a sexually repressed Christian lady (Faye Dunaway).

    Raging Bull (1980)


    In 1941, real-life boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) spurns the mob, who want a piece of him, in his quest for the middleweight title. With the help of Joey (Joe Pesci), his brother and manager, Jake wins the championship belt, then loses it to Sugar Ray Robinson. As his career spirals downward, Jake bloats up and physically abuses Joey and his own teenage wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty). Alienated from everyone and wrestling with emotional demons, the relentlessly self-destructive Jake searches for some semblance of inner peace.


    Based on LaMotta’s memoirs and filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, Martin Scorsese’s gritty, no-holds-barred drama-possibly his greatest-tackles the familiar theme of redemption with blunt force. Oscar winner De Niro, who famously packed on 50 pounds to do the “fat” scenes, is riveting as the brutish Jake, whose primary talent lies in the amount of punishment he can take in the ring. The fight sequences-raw, sweaty, and savage-are bravura pieces of filmmaking. “Raging Bull” may be hard for some viewers to sit through, but Scorsese ultimately leads his protagonist, and us, to a state of grace.

    The Machinist (2004)


    Haunted by nightmarish visions of the past, grossly emaciated machine-shop worker Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) has not slept in a year. And despite his friendships with chipper airport café waitress Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), and kindly hooker Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Trevor is slowly losing his grip on sanity. Menacing stick-figure drawings begin appearing in his apartment, and then Trevor meets a mysterious co-worker whose appearance presages a deadly accident. But is this person real or imagined?


    Anderson’s eerie psychological thriller is an intelligent study of guilt and repression featuring a disturbing lead performance by Bale. Talk about dedication: the actor dropped a shocking 63 pounds to immerse himself in the role of Reznik, a “living skeleton.” It is hard to see the hulking star of “American Psycho” so gaunt and sickeningly starved, but it serves the character’s sympathetic, soul-annihilating psychosis. Leigh and Sanchez-Gijon provide excellent support, as does Mr. Clean look-alike John Sharian, playing a demonic, scarily deformed factory worker who may or may not be a phantasm. Filmed in metallic blues and grays for added effect, “The Machinist” is a paranoid, memorably creepy puzzler.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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