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  • October 22, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Flick-or-Treat

    by John Farr

    John Farr goes flick-or-treating for Halloween’s most haunting flicks.


    Freaks (1932)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In a traveling circus, beautiful but treacherous trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) learns that fellow worker Hans (Harry Earles), a midget, has money, and plots to marry him, then bump him off to get it. She doesn’t count on the fact that Hans is part of a very tight circle of side-show performers, and that they always protect their own kind.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Reviled and in some places banned on release, Tod Browning’s horror classic is like nothing else you’ll ever see – bizarre, bold, and altogether brilliant. A standard soap opera premise is elevated by the conceit of “normal” people as villains, “freaks” as heroes. Browning gets the most out of his unusual cast, mostly non-actors, and creates an eerie, chill-inducing atmosphere throughout. Don’t miss that knockout climax.


    The Haunting (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a professor of the paranormal, sets out to discover whether the infamous Hill House is truly haunted or not, with the help of several human guinea pigs. What happens to the group “in the night, in the dark” leaves no doubt as to the answer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Among a stellar cast, Julie Harris stands out as a spellbinding spinster whom the ghosts of Hill House single out for special attention. A sexually ambiguous Claire Bloom also registers as the clairvoyant Regina. Veteran director Robert Wise masterfully orchestrates tools of the trade to create perhaps the quintessential filmed ghost story, applying a degree of restraint and subtlety generally absent from more modern horror entries. Remade but never equalled.


    The Descent (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Still reeling from a deadly car crash the year before, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) travels to the U.S. with her friend Beth (Alex Reid) to participate in a spelunking expedition organized by her jocky pal Juno (Natalie Mendoza), with whom she has some post- traumatic personal issues. Along with three other female friends, the group descends into an uncharted cave system expecting a weekend of adventure. But tensions rise after a cave-in, when they discover that not only are they profoundly lost in the primordial darkness, but they are not alone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Not the feeble-minded breasts-and-beasts horror flick that’s virtually defined the genre since the ’80s, Marshall’s “Descent” is smart, psychologically tense, and scary as hell. Yes, there’s a lot of gruesome goings-on in this claustrophobic hellhole, but part of the fun of watching it (if you’re into this kind of thing) is figuring out exactly what’s stalking the poor lasses. One or many? And is the cavern breathing or is that my imagination? Solid direction, imaginative editing, and eerie production design take “Descent” even further into nail-biting realms of pure terror.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • October 22, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Highway 61 Visited

    by Sam Hutchins

    The next week was spent slowly making our way up Highway 61.  Traditionally it was known as the blues highway, the road leading from the plantations of the South to new life and opportunity in Chicago and the northern cities.  Much like the ghosts of the musicians whose paths we followed we carried the blues with us.  Unlike us they at least had a goal and a purpose to their journey.  We were in full drifting mode, surrendering more and more to the malaise of the road.

    By now we had been scouting cross-country for a month.  As much as I love being out on the road shooting it only works if it is leading somewhere.  Our limited contact with Kar Wai had seemingly ended altogether.  It was as though we were forgotten.  Every day we drove hundreds of miles and took countless pictures.  We explored every story possibility along the way and submitted our work with nary a word in response.  With no feedback or critique eventually you’re not so much scouting as you are just driving around taking pictures like a tourist.

    Compounding the issue was the endless list of petty resentments we were building against one another.  That much time in close quarters can turn even the most amiable types against each other.  Every inch of space in the truck becomes a battleground; every statement a potential provocation.  For example, Darius was making me insane with the music.  He would control the iPod for hours on end, playing the same songs over and over at high volume.  When I would manage to wrest control of the music he went totally passive-aggressive on me.  It would start with him asking what the song was, complimenting my taste, and then asking if he could turn it down just a little bit.  He would then proceed to lower the volume gradually until it was just barely audible.  He did this every time I tried to play music that I favored, and it was completely maddening.  I’d shortly give up and turn the music completely off.  Minutes later he would play something he liked and crank the volume all the way back up.  In retrospect, he honestly might not have realized what he was doing, but at the time I wanted to bash his face into the windshield.

    Stephane was equally annoying.  He would fiddle around on the computer in the backseat all day long.  If Darius or I saw something of potential interest to us we would point it out to him.  Invariably he would ignore us, engrossed in the screen as he was. Once we were past whatever-it-was Stephane would see it out the rear window and yell for us to pull over.  Usually when we were barreling down a one-lane highway with a truck hard on our ass.  Had I heeded his direction every time he yelled for us to stop we would have died a dozen times.  He yelled for me to stop in the passing lane of the interstate highway, mid-span on bridges, in every perilous situation imaginable.

    Surely I was an annoyance to them as well.  I was weary.  Doing all the driving was arduous enough.  Driving twelve hours a day while navigating, attempting to scout, maintaining the truck, finding nice enough lodging and restaurants to satisfy those two on top of everything else was brutal.  Also, any time we did stop to scout a potential location I had to jump out and do my spiel.  No matter how exhausted I may be I was the initial public face of the company.  It takes energy to approach random people and explain who we were and what we were up to.  Virtually no one we approached had any dealings with being filmed before so it was never a short conversation.  Frequently one of my companions noticed something and yelled for me to pull over, only to face something that I knew wasn’t worth wasting our time on.  Nonetheless it’s my job and I was obligated.  Even facing a location that I considered unfilmable or useless to us I had to haul my weary ass out of the driver’s seat and talk our way in.  More often than not I would be well into the conversation when the boys would realize as I had that it wasn’t worth the effort and yell for me not to bother with it.  I’d grit my teeth, smile and make my exit as quickly and politely as possible leaving a befuddled stranger in my wake.

    We had been going like this seven days a week and were all on the edge when the call came.  Stephane wandered around speaking excitedly on the phone while Darius and I watched from the truck.

    “What do you think, we shutting down?”

    “I almost wish we would. “ Darius replied, “I’ve never worked like this before.  The director really should be here.  We don’t know what to look for.”

    I had to agree.  It just felt all wrong.  Stephane hopped back into the car and we prepared for the bad news.  What we heard instead rather surprised us.

    “Kar Wai loves the stuff we are sending him.  He is able to join us. We’ll meet him in Chicago.”

    Fantastic. We were actually just outside the city in Skokie, Illinois.  We took our time getting into the city and ate at a wonderful old steakhouse there called Gene and Georgetti’s.  After a good night’s sleep we would be picking Kar Wai up at the airport.

    ….

    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.

  • October 19, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Can’t Get Enough Astaire

    by John Farr

    Fred Astaire made films you can watch over and over again.


    Easter Parade (1948)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dumped on Easter by longstanding dance partner Nadine (Ann Miller), Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) rashly wagers he can still draw crowds even teamed with the greenest of chorus girls. Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) is his pick, and Don begins grooming her for stardom.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    In this joyous musical romp, MGM producer Arthur Freed paired Garland with the recently “retired” Astaire after original lead Gene Kelly injured his ankle. Combining Astaire’s moves and Garland’s pipes with a phenomenal Irving Berlin score adapted by Johnny Green and Roger Edens, highlights include the vaudevillian duet “We’re a Couple of Swells” and Astaire’s excellent solo to “Steppin’ Out With My Baby”. The movie was a big success in 1948, and no wonder! By all means, step out with this title.


    The Band Wagon (1955)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Astaire does a semi-autobiographical turn as Tony Hunter, a fading movie star who looks to the New York stage to revive his stalled career, and meets exquisite ballerina, Gabrielle (Cyd Charisse) in the process, along with a host of other colorful Broadway characters. While Tony and Gabrielle don’t hit it off right away, they eventually dance together, which thaws relations.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This film has everything you would expect from an Astaire/ Minnelli collaboration – a first-rate score, color, inventive dance numbers, and overall lots of energy, style and class. Hunter’s film career may be on the wane, but nothing in his dancing indicate why. The smoldering Charisse sets off more sparks than Ginger Rogers ever did, as the athletic, sensual Gabriella. And veteran English song-and-dance man Jack Buchanan is a hoot.


    Funny Face (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fashion photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) transforms Paris bookstore clerk Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) into a modeling sensation. It’s all a souffle-light pretext for breathtaking sets, music and dancing.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Combine the moves of Fred Astaire, the grace of Audrey Hepburn and the talents of Director Stanley Donen with the city of Paris and a Gershwin soundtrack, and what have you got? Movie paradise. Prepare to be delighted: this 50th Anniversary edition is “Swonderful, Smarvelous!” Look for Eloise-creator Kay Thompson playing a fashion editor modeled on Diana Vreeland.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • October 19, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: In the Face of Dying

    by John Farr

    Movies about the way we cope with dying.


    The Seventh Seal (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Returning home from the Crusades to find his country wracked with plague and misery, 14th-century knight Antonius (Max Von Sydow) concludes that God does not exist. At the height of his despair, the wandering Antonius is visited by Death (Bengt Ekerot). Hoping to forestall the inevitable, Antonius invites the black-cloaked figure to play a game of chess, agreeing to accompany the Grim Reaper if he loses. Visited by a parade of believers and nonbelievers over the course of the game, Antonius and Death immerse themselves in philosophical debates about belief, existence, and the nature of good and evil.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the most influential films ever made, Bergman’s “Seal” is a mesmerizing, apocalyptic allegory whose universal themes and striking beauty-beautifully captured in Allen Ekelund’s magnificent black-and-white photography-continue to inspire reverence. Bergman regulars Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson, and Nils Poppe are sensational in supporting roles, while the long-faced Von Sydow makes a perfectly dour, disillusioned knight. With its witches and flagellants, madmen and plague victims, Bergman’s “Seal” is filled with all manner of fascinating images, capped by a dance-with-Death finale you’ll never forget.


    Ordinary People (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Adolescent-aged son Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) must painfully rebuild his life and relationships, particularly that with his parents (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore), after his beloved older brother dies in a boating accident.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    “People” is one of the more harrowing films out there (without blood or violence) thanks to Redford’s inspired direction and flawless turns by Sutherland, Moore and especially Hutton. Penetrating and painful to watch, the film delivers ample emotional rewards. Redford’s first foray behind the camera, the film won the Oscars for Best Picture and Director, as did young Hutton for Supporting Actor. A must.


    Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When their girlfriends head to Europe for the summer, Mexican teens Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gabriel Garcia Bernal) gear up for some uninhibited fun. At a wedding, they meet sexy, spirited Luisa (Maribel Verdu), who’s 10 years their senior, and playfully invite her along on a road trip to a beach called Heavens Mouth, ostensibly in Oaxaca, expecting her to decline. Instead, she takes them up on the offer, and the threesome embark on a journey marked by erotic shenanigans and jealousy.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Cuaron’s exhilarating story of a Mexican menage a trois is steamy and titillating, surely one reason the film performed so well in American theaters. But it also engages closely and intelligently with the class divide in Mexico, epitomized by the jealous contretemps between upper-class Tenoch and the less-privileged Julio for Luisa’s affections, and by the crushing poverty they see on their decadent car trip. No mere tart, Cuaron’s “Mama” dazzles with superb acting and a stirring storyline that’s alternately lighthearted, soulful, and red-hot.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • October 13, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Other Edwards

    by John Farr

    John Farr explores the serious side of “Pink Panther” director Blake Edwards.


    Breakfast at Tiffany’s

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Charming, bubbly Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) leads a peripatetic life in Manhattan, attending swanky parties and living off the largesse of her gentleman acquaintances, who keep her attired in the very best designer outfits. Intrigued by Holly’s coming and goings, as well as her bouts of wistful loneliness, upstairs neighbor Paul (George Peppard) falls for the neurotic socialite. But is there something hidden behind Holly’s sophisticated facade?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from Truman Capote’s novella, Edwards’s fleet-footed romantic comedy would not be the cultural touchstone it is without the effervescent presence of Hepburn. As Holly Golightly, a small-town Texas girl with her feet planted firmly in the glitz of New York’s party scene, Hepburn is irrepressibly charming, a vision of elflike beauty in Givenchy and pearls. But she is also a frail creature harboring secrets, and Hepburn plays both sides exquisitely. Peppard is solid and likable as writer Paul, Holly’s admirer and confidante, while Patricia Neal chews on her steely role as Paul’s wealthy older mistress. A chic, iconic romance, memorably set to the Oscar-winning strains of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River.”


    Experiment in Terror

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Kelly Sherwood is an attractive bank employee who lives with younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers) in San Francisco. When Kelly is accosted by a wheezing psychopath (Ross Martin) who threatens to kill her and her sister unless she embezzles money from her bank, FBI agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) is called in to handle the tricky case. Can Ripley nab his man before Kelly and Toby are harmed?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Blake Edwards, best known for comedies, shows he can pull off thrillers with equal skill. Make no mistake: this one is lean, gritty and frightening. Remick is solid as a victim ripe for the plucking, and Ford appropriately stolid as the dedicated Ripley. And villain Martin (who’d go on to play Artemus Gordon on TV’s “The Wild, Wild West”) will make your skin crawl with that wheezing whisper. Be warned: not for the faint of heart.


    Days of Wine and Roses

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After an awkward meeting at a boat party seems to put them at odds, publicist Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) and Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick) fall madly in love. The social and professional demands of the public-relations racket are nothing new to Joe, but gradually he turns tee-totaller Kirsten on to the pleasures of swilling cocktails at any hour. Over time, alcohol becomes integral to the young newlyweds’ relationship, and threatens to destroy their blissful existence.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A downbeat love story pickled in bile and booze, this melodrama of addiction by the great Blake Edwards skirts the same terrain as “Lost Weekend” without ever getting preachy. Instead, Edwards examines the sullied yet undying connection between his two self-destructive protagonists, played by Lemmon and Remick with unblinking honesty. (Two specific scenes-his in a madhouse and hers in a motel-are wrenching.) Charles Bickford lends terrific support as Kirsten’s widower father, as does Jack Klugman in a small role as Joe’s AA sponsor. “Days” is a hard-hitting drama about love in the ruins, buoyed by Henry Mancini’s melancholic jazz score.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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