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  • July 27, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Early Woody

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Annie Hall, you might also enjoy these great early Woody Allen films:


    Take The Money and Run (1969)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ever since he was a boy, wimpy milquetoast Virgil Starkwell (Woody Allen) has had a compulsion to steal, only to bungle it horribly at the crucial moment. Now grown, Virgil has capitalized on that childhood promise and become a pitifully ineffectual career criminal whos gone from getting his hand stuck in the gumball machine to flubbing his own hold-up notes.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Presented as a mock documentary complete with narration by radio ham Jackson Beck, Allen’s hilarious directorial debut is nuttier and loaded with more gags than his later, more sophisticated New York films. But that’s exactly why it works: The laughs are goofy and often puerile, and for all the zippy one-liners that don’t quite elicit a full-belly guffaw, Allen piles on with cutting satire (focused mostly on footage of presidents Nixon and Eisenhower). You’ll have a lot of fun watching this manic genius at work in one of his earlier comedic efforts.


    Bananas (1971)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Hoping to rekindle their romance, neurotic New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) follows the girl of his dreams, idealistic activist Nancy (Louise Lasser), to the tiny Latin American nation of “San Marcos,” where she’s assisting rebels attempting to overthrow General Vargas (Carlos Montalban). Nancy wants nothing to do with Fielding, who is received as a dinner guest by the wily, scheming Vargas. After the rebels capture Fielding, circumstances lead him to become, unwittingly, the dictator of the country.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Allen’s hilariously wise-mouthed shlub tosses off an arsenal of tart one-liners in “Bananas,” a madcap slapstick comedy that pokes fun at Fidel Castro, tabloid TV (Howard Cosell has a starring role, lampooning himself), the C.I.A., Jewish mothers, and unrequited love. A crazed homage to Don Quixote and the Marx brothers, “Bananas” was Allen’s second film, and the first over which he exercised complete creative control. Sylvester Stallone even has a cameo as a mugger. Go “Bananas”!


    Sleeper (1973)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Greenwich Village store owner Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) reluctantly enters the hospital in 1973, needing treatment for an ulcer. Cryogenically frozen by his surgeon when the procedure fails, Miles reawakens in a bleak future world ruled by an unseen Orwellian Leader. Forced to disguise himself as an android to evade police, Miles eventually teams up with Pollyanna-ish greeting-card writer Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) and joins the underground resistance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    An absurdist parody of sci-fi movies, Allen’s “Sleeper” deftly mixes witty one-liners and nutty sight gags to lampoon the absurdities of contemporary society. Allen reaches Buster Keaton-esque comedic greatness here-battling a giant pudding, surviving an Orgasmatron, morphing into Blanche Dubois-and has a naturally funny, gentle rapport with Keaton, the perfect foil. With Allen’s own Dixieland score providing a manic tempo for all the pratfalls and arch social commentary, “Sleeper” is one of the writer-director’s looniest and most hilarious efforts.


    Love and Death (1975)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Set during the Napoleonic Wars, noted intellectual and coward Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) adores the beautiful Sonja, but she only has eyes for Boris’s mind. Sonja finally agrees to marry him, then enlists Boris in a daring scheme to assassinate Napoleon. Of course, all these shenanigans only serve to confirm the utter futility of human existence-but hey, it’s better than being dead!

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Director/writer/star Allen hits dizzying comedic heights in this zany spoof of Russian literature. Diane Keaton continues to build on her distinctively ditzy persona as the idealistic but scattered Sonja. Populated with assorted other colorful types, the film’s sustained hilarity makes it fully worthy of repeat visits. (Don’t miss that side-splitting scene at the opera where Boris makes goo-goo eyes at the buxom countess!)


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • July 19, 2009

    A Scouting Life: A Healthy Appetite for Debauchery

    by Sam Hutchins

    Being a longtime bachelor (at the time) with a bit of money and a healthy appetite for debauchery, I have spent a lot of time in Vegas. Not only does it offer all the pleasure you like, it’s an incredibly easy weekend getaway. Two phone calls are all it takes. One to JetBlue for a ticket on flight 197 and one to Caesars’ for a room. Make the calls and the hotel will have a limo waiting for me at the airport, room is comped and it’s post time. That is pleasure, however, and this was work. I was heading to Las Vegas with no intentions of misbehaving. Felt sort of odd.

    In retrospect I clearly should have used my rating at Caesars to get the three of us a nice suite. I didn’t, however, as Kar Wai had made it quite clear that he wasn’t interested in scouting the strip. He was much more interested in the seamy underbelly of the town, so I had us staying downtown at the Golden Nugget. The rooms were booked before I got to know the fashion in which Darius and Stephane liked travelling. They were horrified by Fremont Street and downtown Vegas. The hotel was dingy, loud and offered terrible service. I looked at it as a compromise between the really sketchy places where Kar Wai wanted to be and the nicer accommodations available elsewhere. They looked at it as an awful dump of a hotel. They made no secret of their feelings about staying there.

    Wanting to compensate for the misstep, I took them to one of my favorite spots for dinner: The Palm steakhouse at Caesars’. We had a truly spectacular meal of oysters, shrimp, crab, salads, creamed spinach, fried potatoes and onions, huge slabs of prime beef and copious amounts of wine. One benefit to working with the French is the quality of wine you drink. Darius ordered the bottles and he really knows his grapes. We dropped close to a grand on dinner for the three of us, and it was worth every cent for the bonding we did around the table. Particularly as we charged it to the film.

    After many glasses of wine we really opened up and got to know one another, bragging of our victories, mourning our losses and reminiscing lost loves. The only part that got a little weird was our toasts. I was lectured on the etiquette of raising a glass with one’s confreres the proper French way. Darius insisted, and Stephane confirmed, that it is a grave insult to drink with someone without looking them directly in the eye. Darius is very seductive in the way only a Parisian can be and locking gazes with him like that made me uneasy. I felt like the cat that Pepe le Pew used to chase. I’ll take my cocktails without the intense stare, thank you.

    After dinner we made our way to Cleopatra’s Barge for some more drinks. Nothing says class like a gaudy floating bar replete with strobe lights, dry ice fog and the whitest black man in America covering Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” I’ve had some truly epic evenings in that joint. I taught my new best buddies the game “Guess which one is a hooker,” which is a rigged contest because at Cleopatra’s Barge they pretty much all are. The guys were fascinated by the concept and kept pressing me for details as to how I knew a girl was working. Darius didn’t entirely believe me; he’s innocently charming like that. As we were leaving one particularly innocuous looking young woman approached us and asked if we wanted to party with her, helping prove my point. All in all a very nice night and a big help in getting to know each other better.

    Arriving back at the Golden Nugget, I turned to my companions and made the effort once again.

    “Meet in the lobby at eight tomorrow morning?”

    I barely got the words out of my mouth before I was told it would be nine-thirty at the earliest. As we got to our rooms Stephane pulled me aside for a private word.
    “You know, Sam, I have a great location scout in Paris that I use all the time. Best location man in all Europe. When we work together he comes by my room in the morning with a nice cappuccino and maybe a little fruit and water.”

    “We have an expression for that sort of thing in America, Stephane.”

    “What ees that?”

    “Go fuck yourself.”

    My friend and mentor Jonathan taught me long ago that you can say anything at all to someone as long as you keep the tone light and smile when you say it. Turns out he was right.

    ….

    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.

    Photo courtesy H20man

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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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