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  • September 23, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Prime Kazan

    by John Farr

    John Farr on one of the greats, director Elia Kazan, and three of his less-celebrated pictures.


    Panic in the Streets (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Early Elia Kazan suspenser centers around an increasingly desperate search for two criminals on the lam in New Orleans (played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel), who, unbeknownst to them, have been infested with Bubonic plague. If health inspector Dr. Clint Reed (Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) don’t nab their quarry fast, this killer plague will spread and put the whole country at risk.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Breathlessly exciting film is one of the best manhunt pictures ever made, with the plague twist adding an extra jolt of tension. Kazan’s peerless on-location shooting never obscures the terrific acting from the four central characters, comprising both hunters and hunted. Palance is positively magnetic. Don’t miss this one.


    A Face in the Crowd (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Local radio interviewer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) decides to interview transients at the local jail for a human interest story. There, she spots a drunken Arkansas hayseed named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), whom she discovers has rare gift for gab and song. Before long, due to Marcia’s initial boosting, “Lonesome” becomes a wildly popular network TV star. Little does she know she’s creating a monster.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This engrossing and sobering tale about the precarious and poisonous nature of fame in our mass-media age seems even more timely today. Budd Schulberg’s script (who also wrote “On The Waterfront”) literally sizzles, and Neal is superb. As to Andy, this role made him, but he sure is a long way from Mayberry! An impossibly cute, young Remick (as Betty Lou, Lonesome’s baton twirling, clueless child bride Betty Lou, and Franciosa as a slimeball talent agent do fine work; the legendary Matthau is also on hand in a subtle, sad-sack turn as a wise but weary network executive. This is one “Face” you’ll never forget.


    Splendor in the Grass (1961)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Rich kid Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and high-school beauty Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) are going steady in 1920s Kansas, but though the torch of love burns hot and bright, Deanie resists giving up her virginity to Bud, whose sexual frustration drives him into the arms of other, “looser” girls. The fragile Deanie, meanwhile, is driven over the edge by her shrewish mother (Audrey Christie), and her own raging hormones.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Handsome and emitting the masculine musk that would soon turn him into a rakish sex symbol, Beatty makes an assured screen debut in Elia Kazan’s “Grass,” starring opposite an exquisitely lovely and tortured Wood, playing one of Hollywood’s most memorable sexual hysterics. (Reportedly, the two young stars had some sexual hysterics off the sound-stage as well.) Think Douglas Sirk or Tennessee Williams and you have some idea where Kazan’s wonderfully executed tale of young love, scripted by William Inge, eventually tumbles. Keep an eye out too for Phyllis Diller and a young Sandy Dennis, also making her big-screen debut.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • September 23, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Lesser-Known Coen + The Big Lebowski

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s salute to the Coen Brothers.


    Blood Simple (1985)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Suspecting his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) of cheating on him, Texas bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires shlumpy, unscrupulous private dick Visser (C. Emmett Walsh) to murder Abby and her lover Ray (John Getz), one of Marty’s employees. But Visser decides to rig the job and double-cross Marty, leading to a devious turn of events that implicates the innocent lovers in murder.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Filmed on a shoestring budget by Joel Coen and his producer brother Ethan, this heart-pounding homage to 1940s film noir was instantly hailed as a classic of American indie cinema. Featuring Barry Sonnenfeld’s innovative camerawork and murky lighting, “Simple” not only tells a dark, disturbing tale of murder, passion, and back-stabbing meanness, it introduces the marvelously talented McDormand and features a brilliant performance by Walsh as a sleazy, audaciously amoral gumshoe. Inspired by the novels of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, “Blood Simple” is a gutsy, dark-comic debut thriller by the directors of “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski”.


    Miller’s Crossing (1990)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Leo O’Bannion (Albert Finney) is a crime boss with a big problem: his girlfriend’s brother Bernie (John Turturro) has cheated the head of the rival Italian gang, who wants Bernie dead. Leo lets his love for Verna (Harden) interfere with his business sense, and resolves to protect Bernie, even if it means starting a war. This decision puts Leo’s trusted lieutenant Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) on the outs with his mentor, but Tom steadily works to put things right behind the scenes.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A sharp, innovative send-up of everything from “The Public Enemy” to “The Godfather,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant “Crossing” has enough surprising twists, gnarled plotlines, and double crosses to fill several noir movies. Byrne is excellent as Tom, a loyal, boozing mobster whose inveterate gambling and torrid affair with the boss’s girl (Harden, in her debut), eventually land him in hot water with Finney’s Leo. Coens fave Turturro also has a brilliant turn as the weaselly Bernie. Evocative, clever, and beautifully played, “Crossing” is an under-rated homage to the gangster movies perfected by Warners in the 1930s.


    The Big Lebowski (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Super laid-back ’60s dropout Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) enjoys hanging loose and getting high with his two bowling pals, cranky Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and easygoing ex-surfer Donny (Steve Buscemi). But his groovy-loser L.A. lifestyle is about to undergo a massive makeover when some thugs looking for a millionaire named “Jeff Lebowski” bust into his Venice bungalow and drag him into a tangled kidnapping scheme.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ace filmmaking team Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”) took more than a few pages from Raymond Chandler’s seedy L.A. noir novels to create this absurdly comic caper masterpiece. Bridges is riotous as the unflappable aging hippie who finds himself embroiled in double and triple extortion plots-think Phillip Marlowe on a bag of weed-while superb sidekicks Goodman and Buscemi get to sling around a lot of ripe witticisms. Also great is John Turturro, playing a vulgar-mouthed champion bowler named Jesus, and Julianne Moore, fetching as an “erotic artist.” In typical Coen fashion, the camerawork is wildly offbeat, the dialogue sharp, and the performances goofy and intriguing. Don’t miss this kooky homage to the weird world of noir.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • September 16, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Teachers We’ve Known

    by John Farr

    If you ever had a special teacher these films are for you.


    Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Told mainly in flashbacks, “Chips” traces the life of a beloved schoolmaster who serves over fifty years in an English public school. Reminiscing about his personal life and long career, the shy, unassuming Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) also recalls his unexpected courtship and marriage to his stunning and spirited wife Katherine (Greer Garson).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A nostalgic paean to Old England and a deeply affecting story of honorable service, “Chips” succeeds admirably, mainly due to British actor Donat’s touching performance. Donat broke “Gone with the Wind”‘s Academy Award sweep in 1939, stealing the Best Actor statuette from under Clark Gable’s nose. In addition, beautiful English ingénue Garson became an overnight star in the small but pivotal role of Chips’s enchanting wife. Though sentimental by today’s standards, this is a grand and moving classic for the ages.


    To Sir, with Love (1967)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this triumphant urban drama, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a determined teacher out of his element in a tough London high school. Initially facing apathy and resistance from his students, Thackeray ditches the lesson plan and speaks directly to their inner characters, transforming his unruly charges into hopeful–and grateful–young people.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Made the same year as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” James Clavell’s marvelous film-a huge hit in 1967-succeeds largely because of its lead actor. Shattering age-old stereotypes about race in all his roles, Sidney Poitier exuded nobility, strength, intelligence, and humility. Never with a chip on his shoulder, never self-pitying, he commands respect-Thackeray’s students call him “Sir”-showing anger only when provoked by others’ ignorance. “To Sir With Love” is a lasting testament to that impressive strength of character, and a demonstration of how it can be cultivated in others.


    To Be and To Have (2002)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Shot in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, this documentary portrays the magical innocence of children and the loving dedication of one teacher, Georges Lopez. Set to retire after 35 years, Lopez instructs, engages, and inspires several grades of schoolchildren in the course of a school year, touching all their lives.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Any parents out there should quickly lay their hands on the sublime “To Be,” an intimate and heartwarming study of hands-on education in a tiny classroom. What would be a daunting task for most of us is, for Georges Lopez, the application of a natural gift to a highly rewarding purpose. Georges’s innate connection with the 12 children under his care is humbling, and the wistful expression on his face at the end of the school term will put tears in your eyes.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • September 16, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Latino Cinema

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends three classic films about Latinos in America.


    El Norte (1983)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When the Guatemalan army murders their father, impoverished Quiche Indian siblings Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zadie Silvia Gutierrez) decide to make a dangerous trek north through Mexico, hoping to find a better life in Los Angeles as undocumented immigrants. Some help and others prey on the teens, on both sides of the border, exploiting their constant fear of being deported and returned to the misery of peasant life.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Bringing into focus both the plight of illegal U.S. immigrants and the persecution of Indian peasants in Central American nations, Nava’s “El Norte” is an eloquent, honest, and sobering testimony about the simple quest for freedom that defines us all. Nava spares nothing in depicting the trials of his cross-border hopefuls: Enrique and Rosa are beset by an unscrupulous smuggler, bullish cops and border agents, noxious employers, and even insensitive Chicanos. Brutal and harrowing, “El Norte” scrutinizes the hard lives and shattered hopes of undocumented workers with gritty, suspenseful realism.


    Bread and Roses (2000)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    L.A. organizer Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody) wants to unionize a local janitorial service, largely comprised of illegal immigrants. Without rights, these workers are regularly abused and mistreated for substandard wages. Mexican-American worker Maya (Pilar Padilla) becomes a key supporter, risking her own position, much to the consternation of sister and fellow employee Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who must support a disabled husband and can’t afford to lose her job. With so much on the line, will the workers prevail?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The conflict between principle and practical reality is deftly explored by British director Loach in this affecting drama set in present-day Southern California, and features earthy performances by Brody and formidable newcomer Padilla. An intense, authentic depiction of our most vulnerable workers’ struggle for a decent life, the film underscores the importance of taking a stand, however daunting. Shedding light on the desperate lives of people largely ignored in contemporary times, “Roses” is a tense, moving story about those still seeking – and being denied – the American Dream.


    Raising Victor Vargas (2002)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an upright, god-fearing Dominican lady (Altagracia Guzman) struggles to bring up her three grandchildren. The eldest, sixteen year old Victor (Victor Rasuk), is her biggest worry. A self-styled ladies’ man, the inexperienced Victor sets his cap for “Juicy Judy” Gonzalez (Judy Marte), a local beauty who seems way beyond him in wordliness. As Victor enters into the pitfalls and raptures of first love, Grandma imagines Victor indulging in a world of sin, which threatens to corrupt his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), the apple of her eye. Will Victor manage to steer this tricky course so that he gets the girl, while keeping his fiery Grandma under control?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This winning coming-of-age romance disarms the viewer with its authenticity and depth of feeling. Director Sollett coaxes incredibly natural performances from his young cast of unknowns, and builds a story that avoids the usual grim stereotypes about urban ethnic life. Though somewhat misguided, we know Grandma’s heart is in the right place; amidst all the conflicts that arise, an undercurrent of love remains. Both Rasuk and Marte do fabulous work, and their budding romance is believably and touchingly rendered. A wonderfully wise and human film.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • September 14, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Bayou Bound

    by Sam Hutchins

    D.I.'s restaurant

    D.I.'s restaurant

    A few weeks earlier I had sat in my office and worked out an itinerary.  Not a particularly easy task as our goals were so unclear.  Kar Wai had attempted to explain what he wanted us to find for him without success.  Truth be told, he clearly was still working story ideas out for himself.  He knew that he wanted to make a road movie; he knew that he wanted to follow Norah Jones as she travelled cross-country.  Beyond that he was looking for our assistance.  I was happy to provide it.

    My original plan was set up to see as many different parts of the country in as short a time as possible.  I set up a complicated itinerary that had us starting in LA and heading east.  Every three days or so we would dump our rental truck at an airport, fly to a different region of the country, and start another leg of the trip.  I thought it was the smart way to go about it.  Darius and Stephane had braced me the other night and expressed their unwillingness to continue on the route I had laid out.  I had mixed emotions but didn’t fight too hard.  Though I had spent weeks arranging the ideal routes through America they had a foolproof counter-argument.  Simply, we had a great truck and were well-settled into it.  They were right, too.  The Armada was holding up well and we had all staked out our space.  Everyone’s IPod, cigarettes, sunglasses and camera had their established nook; starting over would have caused innumerable arguments.  Distance grants perspective, of course, but at the time not having to fight about which cup holder was mine was more than enough reason to keep driving.

    Prior to this trip I spent nearly a year working in New Orleans and have that city dialed up as well as anyone.  I took weekend trips out west into Cajun country; I was wired in for a hundred mile radius.  I was the next thing to a local.  Still you know what I didn’t know?  Louisiana borders Texas.  Wow, embarrassing, I know.  Thing is, western Louisiana goes pretty far west.  I had no occasion to explore it when I was based in New Orleans.  I had no reason to study the maps as my itinerary had us ending in Dallas and flying to Denver to spend some time in the high desert.  Once our plans were discarded, however, it was the three of us and a map and due east of us was Louisiana.  So we rolled on, putting miles behind us as quickly as possible.

    The landscape changes pretty dramatically as you cross from Texas into Louisiana.  As you move east the foliage becomes increasingly full and lush.  The last of the desert falls off behind you and starts feeling more like low country.  The Gulf of Mexico and its swamplands and estuaries factor into the equation.  Humanity is less and less apparent as you move away from Houston but are still far away from approaching a city of any size.  More than anything it felt as though we were transitioning from the southwest to the south.  I was glad of it.  I felt optimistic about our chance to find someplace worth scouting.  The back roads snaked through the edge of the swamps, punctuated by the occasional paper mill and not much else.

    I had run through my rolodex the day before, calling everyone I knew in the area looking for leads.  One of my contacts came through and called me with information about a place called D.I.’s.  Apparently D.I. was a crawfish farmer who ran a restaurant out of his ancient weathered barn in the middle of the swamp.  Everything about it sounded great.  Supposedly it was the real thing, not a tourist trap of any sort.  I loved the idea of it, feeling it provided a vastly different milieu from anything else we had seen.  Better yet, the directions my friend PJ gave me indicated that it was just off Gator road. Exciting.

    We pushed hard through the swamps, feeling better and better about where we were headed.  Travelling with people in such close quarters everything becomes infectious, more so when you are hungry to find something good.  Every clue we saw led us in the right direction.

    “Look at that old farmhouse!”

    “These trees look great with the Spanish moss; we can do driving shots here!”

    “Maybe we can shoot something with her in the swamps!”

    By the time we actually crossed Gator Road we were like kids on Christmas morning.  We turned a corner and there it was, D.I.’s authentic Cajun Restaurant.  It sat almost perfectly amidst the landscape, set off on its own in the midst of vast fields carved out of the low swamp.  One problem, however.  Instead of the old weathered barn we were expecting we were looking at a large, recently built aluminum sided monstrosity.  The place was a perfect example of recent, cheap construction.  One would be hard pressed to find something uglier or less interesting to film.  A subsequent conversation with D.I. himself revealed this gem:

    “Oh, no, you would have hated the old place.  Beat up, ramshackle barn.  Needed a paint job.  Nothing but an open kitchen and a bunch of old picnic tables.  My nice new place is so much better for your movie.”

    Stephane at D.I.'s

    Stephane at D.I.'s

    In other words, exactly what we were looking for.  To compound matters, we got stuck taking the extended tour.  D.I. and his wife were as nice as you could hope for but I was disappointed and eager to get back to our search of Cajun Country.  After laboring through en extended family history and being pressured into buying a CD of his grandson, Briggs the Wee Cajun accordion player, we were back on the road.

    “What ees the plan for tonight?” Stephane wanted to know.

    “We should spend as much time as possible scouring this area and wind up in Lafayette for the night.”

    Lafayette was close by, and I figured staying there would give us plenty of local scouting time.  D.I.’s might not have been the right place but I was sure we would find an old gas station or general store just around the next curve in the road, or the one after that.

    “Lafayette?  Non, we must go to New Orleans.  We need a nice night out for a change.” Darius piped in.

    “But we’re hours away.  Driving there means we have to quit scouting here and head east.  That’ll take us right out of this area.”

    Once again I was outvoted.  It’s not often I’ll argue against a night on the town in New Orleans, but I really wanted to scour western Louisiana for locations.  Once the decision was made, however, I bought into it fully.  I let Stephane take the wheel and push us eastward while I got on the phone and planned a night of recreation in one of my favorite cities.
    ….

    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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