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  • July 19, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Lolita

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Lolita, you might also enjoy these great films:


    Baby Doll

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In the Deep South, glum-faced cotton-gin proprietor Archie (Karl Malden) is married to coy, dim-witted teenage nymph Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), who sleeps in a crib, sucks her thumb, and refuses to yield her virginity to her husband until her 20th birthday. When wily Sicilian rival Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach, a Broadway veteran in his film debut) arrives with plans to take over Archie’s business – and his lovely young wife – Archie’s insecurities turn quickly into raging, desperate acts of jealousy.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Notorious in its time as the filthiest picture ever made, this steamy, depraved black comedy from the poison pen of Tennessee Williams is expertly handled by Kazan, who had the picture shot in crisp, stark black-and-white. Malden’s disturbing portrayal of cuckold-to-be Archie is a far cry from his later TV stint on “Streets of San Francisco”, believe me. But also see it for a wonderfully sleazy Wallach, and the Oscar-nominated Baker, who scores as manipulative coquette Baby Doll, especially in a porch-swing scene with the lusty Silva. One of Kazan’s trashiest efforts – in the best sense.


    The Killing

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A documentary-like depiction of an intricate race track robbery, master-minded by one Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden). A small-timer, Clay may be in over his head and his crew senses it. The film gives off a palpable tension and sense of impending doom, but the job goes ahead anyway.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Skillfully paced, edge-of-your-seat entertainment, accented by vivid characterizations (Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor stand out as a dysfunctional couple) and stark, striking cinematography from Lucien Ballard. This picture put Kubrick on the map. Watch and witness the budding of a cinematic genius. Co-scripted by the director with Jim Thompson, who also wrote “The Grifters.”


    Paths of Glory

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    An aloof, ambitious French general (Adolphe Menjou) sends his men out on a suicide mission during the First World War, and when they ultimately retreat, selects three soldiers at random to face charges of cowardice, for which the sentence is death. Guilt-ridden and seething with injustice, the soldiers’ commander (Kirk Douglas) defends his men in the court martial proceedings.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Few films expose war’s insanity more starkly, contrasting the all-powerful, remote armchair generals with young recruits, mere pawns in an obscene political game, who get slaughtered on the front line of the war to end all wars. We share Douglas’ righteous fury at the plight of his men as the rushed sham of a trial progresses. One of Stanley Kubrick’s earlier, less self-indulgent gems, this stark, disturbing anti-war film hasn’t aged a bit.


    American Beauty

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Leading an empty suburban life with his uptight, real-estate-agent wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and depressed teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), sardonic fortysomething Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) decides to overhaul his body–and his life–when he falls madly in lust with gorgeous nubile Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane’s flirtatious best friend.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This superlative drama by theater director Sam Mendes peers at the dark side of American middle-class life with ripe, risqué humor and aching poignancy. Both screenwriter Alan Ball and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall were honored along with Mendes at the 1999 Academy Awards for their evocation of suburban alienation, but Kevin Spacey, whose cool, cynical narration constitutes the film’s central nervous system, deserved all the acclaim he received for bringing Lester to life (including a Best Actor Oscar). Working in a subplot involving Lester’s new neighbors, an unhinged Marine (Chris Cooper) and his artsy, drug-dealing son (Wes Bentley), Mendes gives this “Beauty” a gut-wrenching finale that completes Lester’s transformation.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • July 19, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Sylvia

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Sylvia, you might also enjoy these great films:


    Hard Eight

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Down and out after blowing it all at the casinos, doltish amateur John (John C. Reilly) is slumped outside a Reno coffee shop counting his last dimes when Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a long-faced veteran card sharp, buys him breakfast and offers him some priceless tips. Two years later, Sydney and John are partners, but John threatens to blow their business venture when he falls for Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a dim-witted Vegas cocktail waitress who turns tricks on the side.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Before he became famous as the director of “Boogie Nights,” Altman acolyte Anderson directed this intriguing indie about three hard-luck denizens of the seedy Nevada casino scene. Anderson’s forte (like his late mentor’s) is his feel for atmosphere and character, and here he builds “Eight” from quiet, somber drama to shocking neo-noir, especially once Samuel L. Jackson steps into the picture as a blackmailing thug. Reilly and Paltrow (playing boldly against type) shine as tragic casualties of their own low-watt brain cells, and Hall is superb as the heavy-lidded, avuncular gambler with inscrutable aims of his own. If you like a bit of Vegas sleaze with your slow-burning thriller, drop a dime on “Hard Eight.”


    Layer Cake

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Matthew Vaughn’s twisty gangster picture concerns a nameless cocaine middleman (Daniel Craig) who foolishly believes he’s got his risky business well under control and can get out anytime he pleases. His cocky efficiency annoys one of his superiors however, and soon our hero’s tidy little enterprise is turned upside down with a couple of distracting side-bar assignments, which lead to some double- and triple-crosses. Is our nameless anti-hero clever enough to put himself back together again?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Breathless and slick, intelligent and dense, this dynamite thriller marks an auspicious directorial debut for Vaughn, who produced Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”. This picture lacks the black humor of these earlier features, but trumps them both on sheer impact and excitement. Craig is terrific in the lead, though two other performances- Colm Meaney as elder crook Gene and Michael Gambon as ringleader Eddie Temple- elevate the film to immediate classic status. I say: let them eat “Cake”.


    Control

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Corbijn’s searing biopic follows the personal and professional travails of Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), front man for the seminal Manchester post-punk outfit Joy Division, who hanged himself at the peak of his fame. In the mid 1970s, Curtis forms a band, fathers a child with devoted Deborah (Samantha Morton), and attempts to manage an extreme form of epilepsy, all while battling the inner torment that would eventually consume him.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    With his debut film, photographer Anton Corbijn recreates the milieu of working-class Britain and the raw Manchester dance music of that era with an almost documentary fidelity to tone and detail. But it’s the wrenching performance of newcomer Sam Riley, channeling the turmoil and isolative temperament of Curtis, and a gutsy turn by Samantha Morton as his aggrieved wife, that gives this film its edgy emotional force. Filmed in stark black-and-white, “Control” is an elegy to the existential agonies of a legendary figure who will forever epitomize the British post-punk music scene.


    The Bridge

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Inspired by a story in The New Yorker, documentarian Eric Steel spent an entire year filming San Franciscos Golden Gate Bridge, the worlds most popular suicide destination, with a small crew, training a zoom lens on potential jumpers. Weaving in frank, stirring interviews with friends and family members of those who did leap to their deathssome caught on filmSteel gives us a remarkable glimpse of how mental illness, untreated depression, and a crushing sense of hopelessness drives many well-loved people to end their lives.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Though some may balk at the “snuff film” aspect of Steel’s project, “Bridge” is actually a fascinating, compassionate film that humanizes those who succumbed to their personal demons. Not only does it carry a strong anti-suicide message-one impossibly lucky survivor of the jump, teenager Eric, is one of the film’s most compelling voices-it also offers valuable insights into our shared life experience of love and despair, anger and disappointment. Despite its somber, too-seldom-discussed subject matter, “The Bridge” is an important film with a haunting, elegiac feel.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • July 13, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Billy Elliot

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Billy Elliot, you might also enjoy these great films:


    Gregory’s Girl

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) is hitting that awkward stage of adolescence. Tall and gangly, he finds his soccer skills are suffering. Worse yet, he may lose his position on the team to a girl, Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), who’s cool, pretty and athletic. Rather than feel threatened, Gregory sets his sights on her, and is soon involved in a bewildering, tentative romance. When relations begin to cool with Dorothy, Gregory turns to ten year old sister Madeline (Allison Forster) for advice. Soon enough, he learns there are plenty of fish in the sea.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Bill Forsyth’s delightful coming-of-age film rings consistently true, recreating those universal growing pains experienced by boys in their teens. Lovely Scotland setting (admittedly with some thick accents to decipher) and appealing juvenile performances make this a keeper. Forster is adorable as Gregory’s wise, precocious sister. A subtle charmer.


    The Hours

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Plot moves seamlessly among three different time periods and women: the fragile existence of gifted but disturbed writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she starts writing “Mrs. Dalloway”; the claustrophobic life of Laura (Julianne Moore) a housewife and mother in late 1940s L.A. whose reading of Woolf’s book causes a numbing depression to surface; and the predicament of Clarissa (Meryl Streep) a modern-day, Dalloway-like book editor, whose lifetime project, a dying author played by Ed Harris, is receding before her eyes. Each interwoven tale plays out a variation on Woolf’s own isolation and sense of futility.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A subtle, literate meditation on life’s hidden detours which direct us away from self-knowledge and fulfillment. Stephen Daldry’s ambitious piece succeeds as intense, disturbing drama, showcasing prodigious talents of Streep, Moore, and Kidman (who won Oscar). Ed Harris, Toni Collette, and John C. Reilly also shine in this memorable film.


    The Fallen Idol

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In the absence of a strong parental figure, young Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), the 8-year-old son of a French ambassador, has come to revere household butler Baines (Ralph Richardson), his trusted caretaker and confidante, but reviles Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), his shrewish, scolding wife. When Baines comes under suspicion for murder, however, the boy’s loyalties are tested.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Told from a child’s point of view, Reed’s absorbing adaptation of Graham Greene’s short story follows the relationship between a lonely boy (whose pet plaything is, alas, a garden snake) and his caring gentleman domestic. Richardson and Dresdel are marvelous as well-heeled embassy servants whose marriage is empty and bloodless, and whose staircase squabble over Baines’s lover Julie (Michele Morgan) results in tragedy. Fusing elements of suspense with a hushed marital drama, Reed sets up the dichotomy between Phillipe’s observations of events and the adult world’s with depth and sensitivity to his innocence. Pay tribute to “The Fallen Idol.”


    Millions

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    British widower Ronnie (James Nesbitt) moves his young sons Anthony and Damian (Lewis McGibbon and Alex Etel) to a new community after their mother dies, and one day, a large bag bulging with British pounds literally falls out of the sky, landing on Damian’s outdoor cardboard hide-out. The brothers must then figure out how to dispose of this cash, and fast, as within days Britain’s monetary transfer to the Euro will make the pound notes worthless.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Quirky, ingenious and altogether charming fantasy/comedy from director Danny Boyle combines warmth, humor and suspense, as predictably, the previous owners of the ill-begotten cash become vitally interested in its recovery. Young Etel steals the show as the adorable Damian, who happens to be an authority on all the saints, communes with them often, and fittingly, wants to use the money to help the poor but doesn’t quite know how to do it. Boyle paints his story in vivid colors, so that its darker aspects never overshadow the prevailing sense of fun and wonder. Tip-top entertainment for the whole family, though some plot intricacies may be lost on the smaller fry. Never mind- “Millions” will still hold them.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • July 13, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: How I Won the War

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed How I Won the War, you might also enjoy these great films:


    A Hard Day’s Night

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    With “A Hard Day’s Night”, director Richard Lester not only unveils the inner workings of a rock n’ roll band experiencing a virtually unprecedented super-stardom, he also breathes new life into musical film itself. The disarming charisma and spontaneous energy of the Beatles made no traditional plot necessary. It was sufficient to portray a day in the life of the world’s most talked about rock band.“The boys”, as they’re constantly referred to, spend their time narrowly avoiding masses of hysterical fans, jumping into cars and trains which in turn take them to the next hotel room, or sound stage, or performance hall. They each face this hectic life with humor and relative calm. And then they perform!

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Lester’s documentary-style shooting makes all the proceedings feel breathtakingly real- at first we assume everyone is improvising, though this was not the case. (Only John had the confidence to do it). Regardless, all four Beatles were natural performers, especially John and Ringo. The Fab Four are also matched here with fine British character actors like Norman Rossington (as their manager), and Wilfrid Brambell (as Paul’s incorrigible grandfather), who provide additional comic support and flavoring. “Night” remains the perfect introduction to Beatlemania for your kids- in all, a breathtaking, joyful musical ride.


    Help!

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When Eastern religious cultists Clang (Leo McKern) and Ahme (Eleanor Bron) discover that a sacred ruby ring has come into the possession of Ringo Starr-it seems a fan gave it to him and now he can’t remove it-they give chase. Exasperated, the Beatles drummer goes to scientist Foot (Victor Spinetti) for help. But Foot wants the ring for himself, so Ringo and the Fab Four lead the whole kooky crew on a globe-trotting, wild goose chase.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This fabulously goofy, intermittently brilliant romp features some of the finest pop music you’ll ever hear. Richard Lester’s “Help!” was the director’s second (and first color) collaboration with the world-famous Beatles. The “Fab Four”- John, Paul, George, and Ringo- evoke mod, mop-haired versions of the Marx Brothers, while the supporting players-including Roy Kinnear as Foot’s assistant-exhibit fine comedic timing. And McKern’s Clang strays about as far from his signature Rumpole portrayal as you’ll likely ever see. Ebullient, frenzied, silly, but always fun, “Help!” is a madcap portrait of four Liverpool lads who really were going places.


    Petulia

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Archie Bollen (George C. Scott) is a middle-aged San Francisco physician in the midst of a divorce. After meeting Archie at a gala event, sexy, troubled socialite Petulia (Julie Christie) pursues him avidly, hoping to embark on a torrid affair, even though she is married to David (Richard Chamberlain), a handsome swinger with an abusive streak. But Petulia has another connection to Archie too, a secret bond she never divulges, even as their lives become increasingly tangled.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Set in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, Lester’s stylish melodrama pays homage to the swinging sixties in more ways than one. Through jarring jump cuts, flashbacks and “flash forwards,” and glimpses of the Grateful Dead performing for a crowd of gyrating hipsters, the director evokes the psychedelic ethos of the era as a way in to the turbulent lives of Archie and Petulia, each of whom is suffering a private torment: she is a victim of abuse, while he just wants to “feel something.” Scott and Christie are exemplary in their roles, while Chamberlain gets to look pretty, sulk, and act like a cad. Lensed by Nicholas Roeg, “Petulia” is a trippy tale of love and confusion that explores the humid underside of flower power.


    Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this satirical doomsday thriller, a U.S. bomber piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens) receives a signal to release its nuclear payload on Russia. When the unfortunate Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) seeks out Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) to learn why he ordered the drop, and why he’s placed his Air Force base on lockdown, it’s quickly evident the general has lost his marbles. Meanwhile, President Muffley (Sellers again) meets with senior advisers, including a hawkish general (George C. Scott) and the oddly sinister nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), to review their limited options to save the planet.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The most inspired piece of Cold War satire ever and one of the screen’s supreme black comedies, Kubrick’s 1964 “Strangelove” confronted jittery audiences in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not long after the advent of the H bomb. With Kubrick’s twisted genius as director and screenwriter in full bloom, and peerless performances by Peter Sellers (in three roles), Scott, and the unhinged Hayden, the film is unbearably funny and extremely disturbing all at once.


    M*A*S*H*

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Robert Altman’s black comedy details the shenanigans of three rogue surgeons (Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, and Tom Skerritt) assigned to a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Their hijinks distract them from the daily horrors they face in the operating room.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ground-breaking film is likely Altman’s greatest work, a subtle and seamless blending of comedy and anti-war film that’s as fresh and irreverent today as when released. (Extensive use of overlapping dialogue sequences was a first at the time.) Top-notch performances throughout and at times, unbearably funny.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • July 7, 2009

    A Scouting Life: On the Edge of Vegas

    by Sam Hutchins

    Roy's Motel Cafe, south of Las Vegas

    Roy's Motel Cafe, south of Las Vegas

    That same first day we saw Roy’s, a spectacular old half-abandoned gas station in the desert.  It’s the place my friend Jesse had hipped me to, and he was right: it was a great location.  Roy’s had a googie-style sign and an attached café.  Only one bullet hole in the window and in pretty good shape for what it was and where it was. I couldn’t possibly imagine finding a more perfect place for Kar Wai to tell a story in and my instincts are pretty solid.  After rooting around and taking pictures there for a while we moved on to find even more fruits of the desert.

    There were small clusters of buildings every hundred miles or so, clinging close to the desert floor.  We found one such settlement labeled Amboy and another called Essex.  They each consisted of a few buildings like a post office, a gas station and a café with a few out buildings.  The structures were in good condition albeit weathered, and looked like they could easily have been open for business.  Yet they weren’t, and there was not a soul around.  So this is what America will look like after the Plague.  These places were eminently photographable but we could not spend too much time with them.  Given our druthers we each would have been happy to spend hours shooting, but they were not practical for our film.  Roy’s was a perfect location, almost as though it had been built, operated, shut down, abandoned and left to suffer the elements just so we could find it and film it.

    Abandoned settlements

    Abandoned settlements

    The first time we came upon one of these clusters of buildings we were half a mile beyond it by the time I had stopped the truck.  In part due to the way the buildings were built so close to the earth and surrounded by scrub brush but more so because of the speed at which we were travelling.  You see, I love to drive, especially under the right conditions.  We were on two-lane highways in the middle of the desert.  The roads were dry and in decent condition, consisting of long straightaways broken up by gently sloping curves that could be seen from miles away.  Better yet, we only saw another vehicle every few hours or so.  I was definitely testing the limits of our vehicle.  It accelerated quickly for such a big SUV and cruised comfortably at speed.  Stephane and Darius were happy to let me do the driving and were pretty caught up with themselves.  Neither one paid any attention to what I was up to behind the wheel.  Also, you quickly become acclimated to speed when in a moving vehicle for so long.  I gradually took us up to 90, 100, eventually 110 mph.  I held it there for a while, feeling my adrenaline rise and my nerves tingle from the speed.  I pushed it a little harder, nudging the needle towards 115.  The truck started to vibrate noticeably at that point so I backed off and pegged it at a steady 110.

    The desert blows past you at that speed, and it was fast enough to keep me focused on the road.  I wasn’t particularly worried about law enforcement where we were travelling.  If there was an incident that far out you’re easily waiting a few hours for a response to 911.  Plus, I am a friend to the police.  In my job you work pretty closely with cops, and I genuinely like most of them I’ve met.  Enough so that a few have actually become friends of mine.  Over time I have acquired an extensive collection of PBA cards and badges.  For those who don’t know, a PBA card is something police are issued to hand out to friends and family.  It’s pretty much a get out of jail free card up to a point.  They’ll generally get you out of speeding tickets and similar petty offenses.  Having one won’t help you out of a real jackpot but it doesn’t hurt to let whoever has pulled you over know that you are considered trustworthy by other members of the law enforcement community.  I was carrying almost a dozen such cards from various agencies and jurisdictions as well as a few actual badges, but those are stories for another day.  For now all that matters is that I was able to speed with impunity and enjoyed the hell out of doing so.

    Eventually we hooked up with old state route 95 and shot straight north towards Vegas.  It is a more commercial route and the driving turned from pleasure to chore.  I went from driving as I pleased on an empty road to being hemmed in by an endless succession of trucks doing 90.  The road began climbing up out of the desert floor and through rising foothills.  It was definitely time to be aware, just as I was getting a little road-weary and the light was starting to fade.  I wanted to press straight through to Vegas but lost the vote, so we stopped.

    It turned out to be a good decision.  We pulled off at a truck stop-diner-casino just over the mountain from the outskirts of Vegas.  It was nice to have a cup of coffee, and my companions were completely taken by the fact that the diner had so many slot machines.  I’ve been to Vegas dozens of times, so I’m used to the prevalence of gaming opportunities, but Stephane and Darius were seeing it for the first time.  They were thinking profound thoughts about the death of the American Dream; I was fuelling up on caffeine.  We met an unbelievably sweet waitress who was a little fond of Stephane.  After initial confusion based on his accent and generally scattered manner she started flirting with him pretty hard.  It ended the best way possible, with the three of us eating free slices of apple pie al a mode.

    As we stretched and scratched our way back to the ride it occurred to me that I had never driven into Vegas before.  Surprising, really, as I used to spend a lot of time out there.  As a single guy it made for a great long weekend destination.  Warm, sunny, easy to get to and as much trouble as one wanted to find.  Many of my friends live in Los Angeles. Vegas had been a great place to hook up with them.  Takes only two calls to arrange, one to JetBlue and one to Caesars Palace.  But I had never driven any farther than from McCarren Airport.  Arriving after a long day in the desert was a different thing entirely.

    Before we embarked on the final run into town I quietly switched the cord over to use my iPod as the music source.  Stephane had done a decent job of picking tunes all day but now it was my turn.  I put on the Joe Strummer/Johnny Cash cover of “Redemption Song” and put it in gear.  It was as perfect as I expected.  The light was almost gone and night was coming on strong.  We soared over the mountains and faced the golden flashing lights of Vegas as my two favorite musicians guided our journey.  Darius insisted we listen to the song several times in a row as it brought us home.   For the first time that day the three of us were completely in tune with one another and the universe.  Not a bad first day at all.

    ….

    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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