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  • 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)


    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.


    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)


    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.


    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)


    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.


    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.

  • November 9, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: All You Can View: Busby Berkeley

    by John Farr

    Five films featuring epic set pieces and choreography.

    The Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 1

    What It’s About

    The plots of these five early “backstage” musicals are all variations on a theme: in tough times, the (musical) show must go on, even if the leading lady falls ill, or the funding isn’t there, or one of the stars turns out to be a high society type whose family doesn’t approve of show people. And thankfully, with all the intrigues and anxieties of putting on a revue, not to mention the inevitable romantic complications, the show always does go on, and it’s there we see the genius of choreographer Berkeley, whose grand, stunningly kaleidoscopic dance sequences still take our breath away.

    Why I Love It

    Warner’s hit musical “42nd Street” spawned a wildly successful franchise of glittering follow-ups, with the common ingredients Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (except for the last picture), and the spectacular staging and choreography of Busby Berkeley. Guests include James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Hugh Herbert, and Adolphe Menjou, among others. And those songs: “We’re In The Money”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, “Shuffle Off To Buffalo”, and “I Only Have Eyes For You” are highlights. Need I say more?

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • November 9, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Under the Bridge

    by Sam Hutchins

    We left Chicago and started making our way East to Detroit. Kar Wai liked a lot that he had seen in the Second City, which was a relief. There was still only a vague plotline for us to work with, and we were scouting based on hints and rumors. We knew Norah Jones was going to play a heartbroken waitress travelling cross-country, but the rest was a work in progress. Occasionally, however, some new element would slip out, making it clear that Kar Wai had a more developed story than he was letting on to us.

    Back in Chicago, for instance, we had passed through a nasty, rusty old underpass beneath the train tracks. When he saw something that caught his attention, Kar Wai would get even more focused and unaware of the world outside his head than normal. Noticing the underpass, he told me to pull over and started reaching for the door handle as he said it. Unfortunately we were hemmed in by fast-moving traffic. If I hadn’t caught his arm and kept him in the truck Kar Wai might well have stepped out of a quickly moving vehicle. He really did get that absorbed in his process.

    As soon as I could safely pull over he was springing out and quickly striding back to the bridge. We then spent a few hours photographing it. Kar Wai was like a man on a mission. He walked back and forth beneath the bridge several times while Darius, Stephane and I tried to shoot every inch of it. Occasionally he would point out a specific shot he wanted one of us to get, or else just took a camera from one of us and shot it himself. After some time he turned to address me.

    “Can we close this?”

    “Close what, the road?”


    Again, this is a city I had never worked in. I took a quick look around, and it appeared that you could easily set up detours on either side of the underpass, so I made an educated guess.

    “I believe so, but it probably has to be on a weekend. Any idea what sort of scene we would shoot here?”

    “Yes, this would be the auto accident.”

    “The accident?”

    “Yes, where the cop dies.”

    Looking to Darius and Stephane it was clear that they had no idea what he was talking about either. And so it went.

    Now we made our way to Detroit, taking the old blue-line roads that served as highways before the interstate freeway system was built. The beauty of the countryside was a bit of a surprise. Gently rolling fields lay fallow for the winter, tamped down by a hard frost. The houses and barns were widely scattered and all appeared to be in good repair. I saw a great looking gas station and pulled in. It was older, homemade and weathered, nothing at all resembling a modern service station. This was more like a small bungalow with a few pumps out front. Yet it was clearly well built and would be there at least as long as it had already been. I thought it had potential as a location and suggested as much. Kar Wai just looked at me with that blank expression. Impossible to figure out what he wanted.

    We took our time and arrived in Detroit late. Speaking with my office in New York, we had a hard time figuring out where to stay. They kept suggesting hotels in the suburbs, which was not what we wanted. Finally at my suggestion they booked us into the Renaissance Center. I had never set foot in Detroit but knew of it from several acquaintances who grew up locally. What a strange place it was. Certainly a different environment from the lovely farmland we had been in just hours earlier.

    As our difficulty finding accommodations suggests, there’s not a lot going on in downtown Detroit. Large tracts of the city are deserted. Located right in the heart of the city, the Ren Center nonetheless sits surrounded by broad vacant swaths of land. It’s multiple polished glass and steel towers contain offices, a hotel and convention center. Inside you find that it’s built around a central core filled with shops and stores. All soaring, open spaces that somehow feel confined, possibly due to every surface being poured concrete. It was that weird, bad modern architecture that feels oppressive, what I always think of as “Classic Fascist” design.

    Odder still was my experience the next morning. I arose after a very short sleep desperate for sustenance. Checking in post-midnight the desk clerk had laughed at my inquiries about getting some food. Now I was up and in search of coffee and some breakfast. The vast interior spaces that had been so hauntingly deserted upon arrival just hours before were now packed with people. Not just people, but young people, all roughly junior high school age. All of them also smiled incessantly and were polite to the point of being bothersome. Eventually I learned that it was the National Young Catholic Convention. It was like being surrounded by Stepford Children, and it was not doing good things to my mindset.

    Thankfully the others did not keep me waiting long. The morning air braced us as we waited for the valet to bring the truck around. Stephane noticed a group of soldiers in uniform waiting for a van to pick them up and commented that it made him uncomfortable. That, of course, was the type of thing I could not leave alone.

    “Stephane, instead of griping you really should go thank those men.”

    “Why ees that?”

    “Because you’re not speaking fucking German.”

    With that we set out to see what we could discover in Detroit. As we pulled out some plump white snowflakes began lazily drifting down on us. We eased into our scouting day as they eased their way towards the earth.



    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 4, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Close Call at the Pool Hall

    by Sam Hutchins

    There are many elements that make you a good location manager. You need to have a knowledge of history and architecture, an eye for composition, a great sense of direction, and the ability to gain people’s confidence easily, among other things. That last one goes both for the random people you encounter and need access from as well as those who hire you. The better you are at the job the more convinced your employers become of your ability to pull just about anything off. With good reason at times. I’ve closed bridges, driven tanks down New York City streets, and landed helicopters on the West Side Highway. The upshot being that you are often casually asked to do very hard things.

    Leaving the hotel in Chicago one morning I asked Kar Wai what else he would like to see. We had already scouted the city for a few days and I was at a bit of a loss as to where to take them.

    “Let’s go to the pool hall,” he said.

    “Pool hall? Any one in particular?”

    “Yes. They shot ‘The Hustler’ here. I’d like to see that place.”

    Oooo-kay. I haven’t seen the film in years. Not the slightest idea where it was shot.

    “I’m not sure exactly where that is.”

    He just looked at me without the slightest change of expression.

    “But I can find out. I’m sure they’re not open this early. Anything else you want to see in the meantime?”

    “What else can you show us?”

    “There’s a great tradition of modern architecture in this city. Would you like to see some of that?”

    “Show me.”

    And with that Kar Wai resumed his normal position, which was to lean back and stare off into the middle distance, lost in his own head. It was a great relief that he was interested in seeing some modern stuff. I had guessed he might based on his body of work. Good thing as I was out of ideas otherwise. I piloted our group towards the South Side. Not only had I wanted to see Mies van der Rohe’s work at the Illinois Architecture Institute for some time, it had the added advantage of being far away thus buying me time to find the damned pool hall. I called my assistant location manager in New York, Chris Coyne, and got him digging for the location from ‘The Hustler.’ In the meantime I worked on getting us someplace I’ve never been in a city I didn’t know well.

    The Institute did not disappoint. We all loved the campus overall, and Kar Wai was particularly smitten with the on-campus El station designed by Rem Koolhaus. So much so that he graced us with one of his rare smiles.

    “This is good. Very good. We will shoot here if we film in Chicago.”

    Nicely done. I was still sweating the pool hall but Chris called back just as I was at my most nervous.

    “Good news, bad news, boss. Bad news is that ‘The Hustler’ was filmed in New York.”

    “What the shit?”

    “Good news is that it was based on a joint in Chicago called Bensinger’s. Ready to take down the address?”

    A Location Manager is only as good as the people helping him or her. Bensinger’s turned out to be way the hell on the other side of town, up in the farthest corner of Northwest Chicago. We started making our way there. It took us a long time to arrive, accounting of course for our inevitable detour to Chinatown for lunch and my mistake in taking surface streets and not the expressway.

    Bensinger’s was on the second story of an otherwise nondescript old building and marked only by a small hanging sign. We got out of the car and stretched after the long drive before making our way in. It was immediately apparent that it was worth the trip. The place was the prototypical dingy old pool hall, just bursting with character. Speaking of characters, several of them were spread throughout the room racking them up in the fading grey light of the late winter afternoon.

    I approached the old couple working the desk and laid out my regular spiel. As sometimes happens, I was met with cold, dead stares and no words. They just weren’t into it, completely nonreactive to my pitch. Fortunately by this point in our journey Darius and I had developed an excellent rapport. Our eyes met and I gave him just the slightest nod. He understood and began quietly snapping photos while I continued to make my pitch.

    When we first set out Darius would have snapped away without concern. Having bumped into some pretty strenuous objections he had learned to follow my lead. Making a quick assessment of the room I didn’t see any real trouble there, at least none that I couldn’t handle. I also sensed that there was no way that we were going to get permission to properly scout the location. So now I wasn’t really trying to convince the proprietors as much as distracting them while Darius got what he needed.

    Things were cool for a minute but they sure didn’t stay that way. Some loud, angry words came from across the room. Darius was backpedaling and holding his hands up. He was being harangued by a short, stout Chinese fellow in a porkpie hat. Somewhat amusingly, he spoke in a very thick Chicago accent.

    “You don’t just take someone’s picture, man!” he barked, holding his cue up like he was ready to go. “How do you know who I am? Maybe I don’t want my picture taken!”

    Darius was twice the guy’s size but I honestly didn’t like his chances. I got over next to them quickly. The guy was getting louder, not quieter.

    “How do I know who the fuck you are, man? I got a big problem with that!”

    I drew myself up to full height and jabbed a finger at him.

    “Hey! He FUCKING apologized. We’re done. You got a problem with that?”

    There was one of those long moments where it could have broken either way. Some part of me actually wanted him to make a move. I could have taken care of him in a hot minute, and it would be pretty funny to get Kar Wai into a poolroom brawl. C’mon, I thought, say it. Give me an excuse. Instead he backed down like the putz he was.

    “Sorry, man, but that just ain’t right,” he said much softer as he looked away. I threw him a bone in return.

    “You’re right, man, and we apologize. We were just leaving anyway.”

    We made our way outside and loaded up into the car. I couldn’t help notice that Kar Wai had the ghost of a smile on his lips as we drove off.



    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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