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  • November 16, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Brilliant Brenda Blethyn

    by John Farr

    One of John Farr’s favorite actresses in three British films.


    Grown Ups (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Working-class newlyweds Dick (Philip Davis) and Mandy (Lesley Manville) move into their threadbare new row house in Canterbury with humble plans to perk it up but little motivation to do anything but smoke fags and have a pint at the local pub. Next door live stern, callous schoolteacher Mr. Butcher (Sam Kelly) and his good-natured but unhappy wife, Christine (Lindsay Duncan). Both couples’ lives are turned inside out with the arrival of Mandy’s desperately needy sister, Gloria (Brenda Blethyn), a fussy frump who longs to make herself indispensable to everyone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This superbly acted film by English director Mike Leigh (“Naked”) is a bleakly funny slice-of-life tale about two couples mired in somewhat depressing routines. Manville and Davis are delightfully dour as a bickering couple trying to decide whether or not to have a baby, while Kelly and Duncan’s moribund, dysfunctional relationship is alternately hilarious and gut-wrenching to observe. But the film’s greatest asset is Blethyn, whose showstopping meltdown on the Butchers’ staircase is the work of a champion actress – one fully in touch with the depths of despair. “Grown Ups” is a sweetly madcap gem for the feeble-minded fussbudget in all of us.


    Secrets and Lies (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After the death of her adoptive parents, soft-spoken West Indian optometrist Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) sets out to find her birth motherwho shes surprised to learn is a white woman named Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn), a sad-sack factory worker with an embittered, street-sweeper daughter (Claire Rishbrook). After meeting for tea, the two eventually develop a bond, with Hortense guiding Cynthia onto a path to reconciliation with her estranged family.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Leigh’s bittersweet family drama “Secrets and Lies” showcases the superb acting talents of British veteran Blethyn, who picked up a Best Actress nomination for her (mostly improvised) work alongside co-star Jean-Baptiste. Leigh’s long, static shots-especially of the first confused meeting between Cynthia and Hortense at a London teashop-are admirable feats that give you the sense you’ve known these characters for years. Kudos also to Timothy Spall, playing the bearish brother Cynthia longs to reconnect with. For an emotionally enriching film that deals intelligently with class, race, and family conflict, check out “Secrets and Lies.”


    Little Voice (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Little Voice (Jane Horrocks) is a shy young woman with an extraordinary singing voice, though no one knows it except her mother, Mari (Brenda Blethyn). One night, Mari meets smarmy talent agent Ray (Caine) at a bar, and brings him home, where he hears LV warble a perfect rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Smelling a sensation in the making, Ray sets out to arrange for her public debut, but the road to stardom is pockmarked with jealousy, anger, and more than a few complications.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Mark Herman’s utterly winning “Little Voice” was an indie sensation in Britain, where it charmed the socks off audiences. Blethyn’s hilariously histrionic turn as LV’s overbearing mum won her an Oscar nod for best supporting actress, and Caine’s own performance as a venal manager with a thing for Roy Orbison has a humorous bite. But the star is Horrocks herself, who gives a tour de force performance as the introvert with golden pipes (just wait for her showstopping debut). “Little Voice” might be a modest film, but it has a whole lot of heart.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • November 16, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Tony Richardson Times Three

    by John Farr

    Three early 60s gems from director Tony Richardson.


    The Entertainer (1960)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fading vaudeville comic Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) plays to virtually empty music halls in Britain’s seaside provinces, limping through the same stale routines in garish make-up, but side-steps his failure through pathetic flings with younger women. Selfish, arrogant, and insensitive to those around him, especially alcoholic wife Phoebe (Brenda De Banzie), Archie ultimately damages the lives of everyone in his family, including doting daughter Jean (Joan Plowright).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ironically the foremost symbol of traditional English theatre, Olivier showed off his astounding range with an anti-heroic, tour-de-force turn in Tony Richardson’s 1960 drama, adapted from John Osborne’s play. Reprising his celebrated stage role, Sir Larry has a field-day playing Rice, a somewhat ghoulish has-been who personifies his own nation’s decay, and the effort earned him an Oscar nomination. De Banzie and newcomer Plowright (who’d go on to marry Olivier) excel in supporting roles.


    The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sentenced to a boys reformatory for robbing a bakery, rebellious English punk Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) soon attracts the interest of the schools Governor (Michael Redgrave) for his athletic prowess. Hoping to groom Colin for a cross-country race against a public school, the Governor endows him with special privileges. But is the embittered Colin willing to be house-trained?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the best of Britain’s Angry Young Man films, Richardson’s expressive drama hinges on the complex psychology of Colin, an uneducated but cunning youth still smarting from the recent death of his father. Richardson builds tension by cutting between the restrictions and tensions of reform-school life and Colin’s recollection of events leading up to his arrest and detention. Courtenay (“of “Billy Liar” fame) gives a haunting performance in the title role, and Redgrave is masterful playing a cold rehabilitator obsessed with winning a trophy. For a powerful expression of working-class disaffection, go the distance with “Runner.”


    Tom Jones (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Based on Henry Fielding’s book, Tom (Albert Finney) is a fortunate orphan adopted by a wealthy squire in eighteenth century Britain. In young adulthood, Tom’s good looks and lusty nature fuel an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex . With various parties set against him due to his humble birth and shaky morality, our hero can’t win the approval of Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) to marry beautiful daughter Sophie (Susannah York). Soon Tom must leave home to seek his fortune, and a host of bawdy adventures ensue. Will Tom ever be found worthy of his beloved Sophie?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Tony Richardson’s rousing film has all vital elements in proper alignment: a brilliant screenplay by playwright John Osborne, swift pacing fueled by John Addison’s zippy harpsichord score, and colorful performances from a powerhouse cast including Griffith, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, and a young David Warner as the priggish Mr. Blifil. York is the epitome of fair English beauty, and Finney carries off the central role with gusto. Sumptuous color photography is another bonus. Don’t miss the famous Finney/Cilento eating scene.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • November 12, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Espzz’s Pizzeria

    by Sam Hutchins

    Any proper journey will leave you a different person than the one you were when it began. That was certainly the case with this trip. And as the hippies liked to say, what a long, strange trip it had been. I had left New York on short notice with two rather odd, foreign strangers and spent weeks on end working long hours with them as we saw every bit of the country we could. Every morning I awoke in a new bed in a new place. I had gotten in the habit of writing down exactly where we were on a pad and leaving it on the bedside table. That helped me re-orient in the morning. Now we had left an extremely odd hotel and set out in the late morning light to explore downtown Detroit. Perhaps it was the journey or else the ongoing sleep deprivation but life was feeling pretty surreal.

    Downtown Detroit was deserted. I mean, emptier than empty. Every store was closed and not another car was in sight. You could lie down in the middle of the street and watch the clouds go by if you cared to. The snow was coming down a little harder and the streets were wearing a light dusting of it. The four of us sat in the truck idling in front of the Fox Theatre, waiting for Mark to arrive. Mark was the younger brother of a good friend who lives in Detroit and works for GM. I had enlisted his assistance, as I had no knowledge of the city whatsoever. Also, I knew he could hook me up with some good pot.

    Honestly, I smoke on occasion, but would easily go without for the length of the journey. One of my companions had a big appetite for the stuff, though, and sought out my assistance. Though by no means a part of my job I admit to getting a perverse pleasure from the ease with which I scored for him. This was the fifth pickup I had made in a different city on our journey. Mark did not disappoint when he arrived shortly thereafter. He was also helpful in easing my mind about the empty city when he pointed out that it was Saturday morning.

    That may be a strange concept to New Yorkers, where the city is always hopping. On the weekends we simply trade out the office workers for tourists and the streets are just as busy. Having grown up in Cleveland, however, I got it. Things shut down on the weekends as everyone was comfortably home in the suburbs. Even The Cleve isn’t this bad, though. This place was dead. Mark explained to me that during the just-concluded All-Star Game festivities the NBA and the City of Detroit had teamed up to create temporary nightclubs out of vacant properties. Otherwise there simply wasn’t enough to do after dark.

    Desolate and gray, but also somehow beautiful in a way that struck Kar Wai’s fancy. He and Darius looked truly excited. I suspect that it was partially due to circumstance. The grand old buildings, the empty streets, the gunmetal sky and the fat snowflakes did add up to something special. There was nothing if not atmosphere to spare. The two men wandered off, getting deep into conversation as they shot pictures. I trailed behind, only getting involved to usher them out of the street to safety when the odd car did come along. Part of the job is just putting people in the right circumstances and letting the magic happen. This was the first time I had seen Kar Wai really engage anyone in conversation, so I was staying out of the way.

    It was apparent that we were in love with the general aesthetic of the city. We reloaded the truck and began cruising as the snowfall increased. With a little prodding Kar Wai indicated that we needed a cheap motel and a restaurant for Norah’s character to work in. And so we looked.

    The restaurant was the first priority, and the heart of downtown Detroit was clearly not the place to find it. With Mark’s assistance we explored the neighborhood around Wayne State University. We talked our way into a combination bowling alley/music venue that had some potential. Whether it was right for us or not it was close enough to be considered. Whenever you can broaden the spectrum of choices and give the director some different ways of looking at a location you are doing the job well. We also saw some great flophouse hotels in the area. These were pretty scary looking places, and we were rebuffed each and every time we approached one. I tried to explain to Kar Wai that we weren’t getting into any of these places as a group but that I knew I could come back alone and work my way into them. In return I got that long blank stare that told me everything and nothing at all.

    We also had some success in the area immediately adjacent to the old Tiger Stadium (now gone). There were still a few operating businesses in the area as well as the bones of some defunct ones that showed promise. Much to my surprise, Kar Wai fell in love with a place called Espzz’s Pizzeria. I didn’t get it at first, as it seemed pretty nondescript. Later I crossed the street to get a wide shot and realized that it sat on a corner with an abandoned factory in the background. I see what he saw, but even so I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wide establishing shot in one of his movies so I was still wrapping my head around it.

    Old man Espzz was a character. He was into the idea and had such a great look we could well wind up casting him in the film. Isn’t every pizzeria proprietor a short man with wild tufts of hair and a big brushy moustache? Guy looked like he was straight from Central Casting. He even let us come behind the counter and make our own pizza pie. Standing back there I had one of those purely transcendent moments. The realization struck me that my two generations back my family fought their way out of the coal mines and into the steel mills, now here I am helping shape a movie with one of my heroes. Plus, we get pizza! Life is good.

    ….

    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.

  • November 10, 2009

    A day in the life of a NYC location scout

    This week, THIRTEEN’s original profile series, New York on the Clock, explores the world of scouting for narrative film. Meet Laura Berning, one of Sam Hutchins’ scouting buddies, and location slueth for major motion pictures like Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco, and Spider-Man 2.

  • November 9, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Tougher Tony

    by John Farr

    Tony Leung Chu Wai often portrays broken-hearted loners… but not in these roles.


    Hard-Boiled (1992)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Renegade Hong Kong cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) is relentless in his pursuit of a brutal gang of gun smugglers, but he has a softer side, too, especially for co-worker Teresa. When his partner is killed in a shoot-out at a restaurant, Tequila is forced to team up with Tony (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a mysterious undercover cop embedded deep in the mobs killer-for-hire network.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Before he became a well-regarded Hollywood action director, John Woo (“Face/Off”) made this superb police thriller, the most energetic and hyped-up of his many Hong Kong ventures. Known as the Chinese De Niro, Chow Yun-Fat is by turns aggressive and cool in the role of Tequila, a cop who thinks nothing of unloading a hailstorm of bullets in a teashop but who nurses an odd fondness for his enigmatic counterpart, played with stone-faced rigor by Chiu Wai. With his trademark guns-blazing style and fluid, slow-motion theatrics, Woo stacks one ballet-of-blood on top of another, with a body count to rival any Scorsese film. But it’s the audacious finale-a shootout set in a maternity ward-that makes this “Hard-Boiled” cop story an absolute must-see.


    Infernal Affairs (2002)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang) has planted young gangster Ming (Lau) in the Hong Kong police department to track the authorities anti-mob activities. At the same time, Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) has hand-picked police-academy recruit Yan (Wai) to work undercover in Sams gang. As the two moles work diligently at cross-purposes, they each begin to lose a sense of their real identity, while their respective bosses wage a war of nerves that will eventually place Ming and Yan on a collision course.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Remade by Martin Scorsese as “The Departed,” Lau and Mak’s superior “Affairs” is the kind of clever, suspenseful, genre-twisting epic Hong Kong cinema has been famous for in recent years. The directors examine the meaning of loyalty and honor while blurring the line between good and evil, and the result is a wrenching psychological cop thriller with a pace all its own. Asian star Lau is marvelous playing opposite the equally charismatic Wai, and the film gets an extra boost from its superb visuals. “Affairs” is thrilling, intelligent, and easy to love.


    Lust, Caution (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    With Japan occupying China during WWII, gorgeous young actress Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is recruited by student dramatist Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom) to seduce a bigwig collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chu Wai), who’s been targeted for assassination. At first, things go according to script, but unexpected turns put Wong in grave danger.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ang Lee is best known to American audiences for his Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” But he returned to Hong Kong to make this ravishing political thriller, and included lovemaking scenes so graphic (i.e. so hot) he got slapped with an NC-17. Regardless, Lee knows how to direct actors in any language, and here he draws on the great talents of Leung, Chen, and smoldering newcomer Wei, mashing up intrigue and romance with an enthralling story of national identity. Proceed with “Caution”!


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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