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  • 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.

  • September 9, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: The African-American Experience

    by John Farr

    John Farr recommends films that explore the African-American experience.


    Nothing but a Man (1964)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this landmark independent film by Michael Roemer, Duff (Ivan Dixon), a struggling black railroad worker meets Josie (Abbey Lincoln), a shy, refined preacher’s daughter. They fall in love, but soon Josie must adjust to Duff’s frustration as he faces discrimination in a repetitive, dead-end job. How they surmount these obstacles and stay together shines a penetrating light on the black experience of the time.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A lean film of unusual grace and power, thanks to a perceptive script and solid characterizations. Both Dixon and jazz singer Lincoln give heartfelt portrayals as Duff and Josie, and look for the late, great Julius Harris playing Duff’s drunk, delinquent father. “Nothing” is an inspiring work of cinema that helped fuel the Civil Rights era, and still speaks volumes today.


    Killer of Sheep (1977)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Living hand to mouth in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) toils at a slaughterhouse, where the dispiriting and mind-numbing routine of dispatching livestock leaves him emotionally remote from his wife (Kaycee Moore) and young son. Under these circumstances, life’s pleasures come in small and unexpected ways.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Burnett’s tender, affecting film, a landmark in American independent cinema, hasn’t much of a plot, content instead to observe the melancholic daily existence of an impoverished African-American neighborhood. But its neorealist aesthetic, lugubrious pace, and minimal storyline are the ingredients for a surprisingly moving film that depicts ghetto life with lasting beauty and an authentic sense of humanity. Both touching and heartbreaking, with a sweet jazz score setting a mood of inner yearning, “Killer of Sheep”, hidden away too long, should be at the top of your must-see list.


    4 Little Girls (1997)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Spike Lee’s documentary re-visits a shocking crime which shook the nation in 1963, when a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama was blown up, killing four African-American girls. Film combines reminiscences of the girls’ families and friends with observations on the times and the event’s broader significance within the Civil Rights movement.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    An invaluable piece of film-making, as Lee revisits an atrocity we should never forget. The overwhelming sense of personal loss is palpable and heart-rending. It’s also striking how the tragedy accelerated the progress of civil rights by thrusting the race issue onto the world stage. Ultimately, these four promising, innocent girls are seen as martyrs to the age-old struggle for racial equality. A touching, insightful film from Lee.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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