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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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • July 6, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: The Triplets of Belleville

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed The Triplets of Belleville, you might also enjoy these great films:


    M. Hulot’s Holiday

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Before Inspector Clouseau, there was the gifted actor/director Jacques Tati and his creation, Monsieur Hulot: a kind eccentric who, in his physical interactions, appears out of step with the modern world. This first Hulot film lampoons the conventions of the French as they travel en-masse to the seaside during one sweltering summer. Predictably, Hulot’s presence livens things up considerably.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The first fabulous Hulot picture where sound and dialogue are mere accents to the observance of mundane, everyday activity. Tati’s brilliance lies in showing us just how, with Hulot’s special touch, these rituals and routines can be put off kilter. The result: a masterpiece of subtle visual humor and an homage to the forgotten conventions of silent film comedy.


    Mon Oncle

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unemployed Parisian M. Hulot (Jacques Tati) lives in a baffling, ultra-modern world, especially when he gets lost in the gadget-packed, whatsit maze of his sister’s house. Sweetly naive, the clumsy bohemian escorts his nephew, Gerald Arpel (Alain Becourt), home from school each day, only to court disaster when he wanders through the Arpels’ mechanically enhanced home.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    France’s answer to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, comic genius Jacques Tati leads us on an uproarious trek through the futuristic 1950s in “Mon Oncle,” his first color feature. With hardly any dialogue, Tati orchestrates one hilarious pratfall sequence after another, involving everything from wild gizmos to click-clacking high heels, and even a downbeat dachsund. Like Chaplin, Tati was a perfectionist, and the Oscar-winning “Mon Oncle” is exactly that: A perfect collision of madcap slapstick and social satire, with a Tramp-like heart.


    Playtime

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    M. Hulot (Jacques Tati), a Parisian bewildered by modern technology, spends one hectic morning attempting to keep an appointment with M. Giffard (Georges Montant) in a towering, ultra-modern office building filled with automaton-like workers. Meanwhile, a group of American tourists including Barbara (Dennek) disembark at Orly airport and take a bus to their hotel. He and she eventually meet in the hustle and bustle of a glitzy, shimmering new supper club, once Hulot has navigated the whirring, humming cityscape that entraps him.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Preceded almost ten years earlier by “Mon Oncle,” this marvelous French comedy continues the misadventures of Tati’s Chaplin-esque everyman, M. Hulot. The most dazzling and technically accomplished of his films, “Playtime” is a light satire on the mesmerizing and disorienting effects of technology. Filmed in 70mm on a vast set-an extant metropolis that Parisians dubbed “Tati-ville”-“Playtime” is a jaw-dropping spectacle that certainly reflects the director’s wistful regard for simpler times. Still, the carnival-like sequence in the nightclub and the symphonic traffic jam that close the film feel warm, fun, and somehow exquisitely human.


    Traffic

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This jittery, genre-crossing drama follows three interwoven storylines: the efforts of Mexican narcotics cop Javier (Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro) to bust up the Obregon cartel; the parallel work of San Diego DEA agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle), whose arrest of a drug-trafficking kingpin forces his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to deal with underworld associates; and the ironic ignorance of newly minted U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a man strikingly unaware that his privileged, high-school-age daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become a free-basing cokehead.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scripted by Stephen Gaghan from an acclaimed BBC miniseries, Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning “Traffic” is a hard-hitting, superbly stylized exposé of the war on drugs. Visually slick and masterfully directed, the film works beautifully as an ensemble drama of interconnected vignettes, and as a wake-up call to parents, educators, and clueless officials, highlighting the insidious ways illegal narcotics infiltrate the culture-and the mostly ineffective means we have of rooting them out. An exhilarating reality check that’ll keep you hooked.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • July 6, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Gigot

    by John Farr

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


    The Hustler

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) is a charismatic California pool shark with a wide streak of arrogance to match his considerable skill. After he loses big to the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), Eddie hits the skids and falls for fellow lost soul Sarah (Piper Laurie). Trying to hustle his way back to the top of his game, he entrusts his future to oily promoter Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who promises him riches and fame. But will Gordon deliver if Eddie does?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A gritty, atmospheric picture about the tense world of high-stakes pool, Rossen’s “The Hustler” features some of Newman’s best work-to-date. “Fast Eddie” may be a young virtuoso with a pool cue, but his maturity hasn’t caught up with his moves, and he learns some hard lessons in pool and life from Minnesota Fats, played to cool perfection by the late, great Gleason. Scott also stands out as a ruthless backer, and Piper Laurie does a sad, sensitive turn as a lonely woman on the fringes who falls under Eddie’s spell. Though Newman was Oscar-nominated, he’d have to reprise the role twenty-five years later (in “The Color Of Money”) to win the statuette. I prefer this, his original outing.


    A Guide for the Married Man

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gene Kelly’s comedy has the married Paul Manning (Walter Matthau) getting a crash course on the finer points of adultery from also married veteran adulterer Ed Stander (Robert Morse). The lessons Ed imparts are acted out in sequences featuring a long line of guest stars, including Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Art Carney, Phil Silvers, Wally Cox, Lucille Ball, and Jayne Mansfield.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the more side-splitting comedies of the 1960s, dated and politically incorrect in the extreme, which only makes it funnier today. Director Gene Kelly (yes-he was also a dancer) deserves kudos for taking the most delicate of subject matter and toeing the line of good taste like an expert tightrope walker. Both Matthau and Morse are a riot together, but some of those cameos take the cake: in particular, look for the Reiner, Ball and Carney sequences. Also, dig that catchy title tune by The Turtles-like the rest of the movie, it’s quintessential sixties.


    Inherit the Wind

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this courtroom drama based on the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and fundamentalist prosecutor Matthew Brady (Fredric March) face off when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York), is put in jail for teaching evolution in tiny Hillsboro, Tennessee, with the arrest instigated by his girlfriend’s disapproving father, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Kramer’s spellbinding film features a deft performance by Tracy as the rumpled, deceptively plain-spoken Drummond (modeled on Clarence Darrow), matched by March’s larger than life, virtuoso turn as Matthew Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan). Just sit back, pretend you’re sitting in that humid courtroom, and watch two old pros at work. You’ll re-live history. Also look for Gene Kelly in one of his only serious, non-dancing roles as a cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken.


    An American In Paris

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is an impoverished painter plying his trade in the City of Lights. When a beautiful French girl (Leslie Caron) sets the artist’s heart aflame, he’s beside himself. Only problem is, his close friend Henri, a nightclub singer, is in love with her too.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Set to an incomparable Gershwin score, this exquisite film still mesmerizes. Gorgeously photographed by John Alton, and invigorating from first song to last, “American” swept the 1951 Oscars, thanks to the winning talents of producer Arthur Freed, star Kelly, and director Minnelli. The climactic ballet sequence, performed to the title tune by Kelly and Caron, is one of the most dazzling musical set-pieces ever captured on celluloid.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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