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  • August 31, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Julianne Moore’s Peaks

    by John Farr

    Who knew that a bit part in The Fugitive would lead to such a prolific and polished silver screen career?

    Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)


    Director Louis Malle’s swan-song takes us inside a run-down New York theater for a reading of Andre Gregory’s upcoming presentation of “Uncle Vanya”. The cast, featuring Wallace Shawn (Vanya), Julianne Moore (Yelena), Larry Pine (Dr. Astrov), Brooke Smith (Sonya) and George Gaynes (Serybryakov) proceed to enact, in their shirtsleeves, Chekhov’s brooding tale of jealousy and isolation, with pauses for coffee-breaks between acts.


    Pared down, offbeat approach to rendering of Chekhov may inflame purists, but actually makes the playwright’s dark, depressing work more accessible. We get the full treatment, with no flubbed lines or distractions to break the dramatic tension of the piece. And though Shawn and Moore may not be ideal casting, they turn in holding performances which transport us to that bleak, far-away time in rural Russia. A daring and intelligent piece of work from the late Malle, which takes us behind the velvet curtain to view at close quarters the practice and discipline of acting.

    Boogie Nights (1997)


    At a disco one night in the 1970s, adult-movie impresario Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) spots handsome busboy Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), and invites him for a casting call. Almost overnight, Eddie – a good-natured, slightly dim kid from a broken home who believes he has “something special” to share with the world – changes his name to Dirk Diggler and becomes a porn star, with all the perks and dangers such a lifestyle entails.


    Loosely based on the life of ’70s erotic-film stud John Holmes, Anderson’s surprisingly human second feature is an Altmanesque blend of wistful humor and naturalistic ensemble acting. Dirk quickly discovers his “real” family in the cozy, coke-fueled decadence of Horner’s misfit milieu, where he’s nurtured by maternal porn actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), and befriended by numerous quirky types played by a who’s who of ’90s A-listers: Heather Graham, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy. An offbeat gem, with a tongue-in-cheek “money shot” that’ll make your jaw drop.

    Magnolia (1999)


    In the San Fernando Valley, a male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) caring for a dying media titan (Jason Robards) tries to contact macho sex guru T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) to tell him about his estranged father’s fading condition. Meanwhile, an ailing TV quiz-show host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), hopes to reconnect with his drugged-out daughter (Melora Walters), who’s being courted by a tender-hearted cop (John C. Reilly) in this sprawling drama of intersecting lives and fortunes.


    Anderson’s magnum opus is an ensemble film like none we’ve seen since the heyday of Altman, clearly the young writer-director’s inspiration. Each member of the impressive cast, including Julianne Moore as a pill-popping wife and William H. Macy as a grown-up child celebrity, bring an angst-filled depth to the themes of personal and familial dysfunction that have defined Anderson’s work since “Boogie Nights.” Plus, playing a misogynistic motivational speaker, Tom Cruise registers with one of his most powerful performances ever. “Magnolia” is a revelatory, emotionally cathartic film full of energy and a robust enthusiasm for cinema. Despite a final, overwrought “plague” sequence which blunts its overall impact, this film remains a breathtaking psychological drama, full of twists, turns, and sing-songy surprises.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • August 28, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Guest Post: I Paid for Woodstock

    by Susan Silas

    This weekend, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock opens in theaters. Before you see the film, read this guest post about what it was like to be at Woodstock by one of blogger Sam Hutchins’ colleagues, fellow location scout Susan Silas.

    “Governor Nelson Rockefeller declares Woodstock a national disaster area.”  Woodstock was on the front page of the New York Times for days.  My mother, who had allowed her barely 16 year old daughter to go to this rock concert, was appalled.  But to her it wasn’t the lack of amenities that was horrifying, it was the sight of her daughter dressed in a blue work shirt and blue bell bottom jeans, surrounded by half-a-million other young people attired in the same fashion that ran a chill down her spine; it reminded her of something more sinister and repugnant, though in her day they wore brown.   In our matching uniforms of blue, armed with tents and sleeping bags, and with the help of an endless downpour, we were about to turn the green upstate fields on Yasgur’s Farm into a mire.

    In the pelting rain the pasture turned pigsty  — a vast expanse of boot sucking mud and oozing offal.  With only 40,000 tickets sold and 500,000 people present the concession stand ran out of cokes about the time the Porto-Sans overflowed.  These outhouses sat on a small ridge at the edge of the crowd their doors hanging partially open with streams of toilet paper escaping to the outdoors fluttering in the breeze like wind socks at an airport and giving warning every time the wind shifted carrying the acrid smell of excrement through the crowd, causing even the most steadfast stoner to swoon.  Occasionally an observer would call out with a groan just before the stench washed over us.

    The concession stand must have been staked into the ground at the outset.  Two cheery kids danced along to its movements trying to keep up with the crowd in front of them.  It had become unmoored in all that rain and I remember finding myself walking sideways to keep abreast of the cash register while a thick crunch of ambitious customers teetered back and forth in an attempt to stay with the stand and get the last of the Coca-Cola.  On my way back through the crowd with my small tray of Cokes I received a round of applause for my efforts. It seemed that even the smallest local event (local meaning within earshot) could trigger applause from one’s neighbors. After the first day, I never saw the concession stand again.  Out of merchandise and unattended it must have drifted off in the sea of mud.

    On the second day a group of about 1,000 people lined up to try to use the bathroom at a small local bar that was accustomed to the hunting crowd as its clientele.  My stepfather, an Eastern European disenfranchised aristocrat who saw himself as the great white hunter was quick to recognize my description of the place.  The toilets were labeled “Pointers” and “Setters” and I had two dizzy girls ask me “Which one is ours?”  The owner came to the front door and looked out at the gathering mass of hopeful faces; none he knew would spend a dime in his establishment. He yelled out “No men will be allowed to use the restrooms here – go piss in the woods.”  From then on the matter of the “Pointers” and the “Setters” was moot but even with two bathrooms the wait was very long.

    On the first day, things were a bit unorganized and it was actually possible to walk up to the stage and ask to have a friend paged.  I remember making my way up there and asking them to page my cousin.  I knew she was out there somewhere in that crowd and a few minutes later her name rang out on the PA system and 10 minutes later we were standing together up front.  What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t necessary to page anyone.  Even among 500,000 people and license plates in the fields from as far away as Alaska, I seemed to run into everyone I knew who had come.

    “Wow, you went to Woodstock.”  I’ve often had that reaction from younger people if I choose to admit I was there.  It creates awe but also gives away my age.  I don’t remember everyone I saw play.  The music went on 24 hours a day and I barely slept, I was wet and cold and covered with mud and I made the mistake of going with someone I didn’t like that much because I had a fight with my best friend John two days before and I needed a ride.  I do remember waiting endlessly for Sly and the Family Stone to get on the stage.  They had a lot of electronic equipment and refused to come on until the rain let up. I remember that poor Tim Hardin was the only artist capable of stimulating ire in the most good natured crowd I’ve ever been in. He was booed off the stage.  Hardin was a serious drug user and he was nodding out in the middle of his performance. Word went out in the crowd that the needle was still stuck in his arm onstage  —  a rumor I had no way to verify then or now.

    The night before it began we had shut down Route 17.  We – a bunch of kids.  The highway was so crowded with cars that the State Police, incapable of any solution to the largest and longest traffic jam ever seen on a New York roadway shut the Thruway down and began diverting traffic.  It might have been described as the largest tailgate party ever seen, but this was not a football kind of crowd.  Perhaps it was more akin to a drive-in movie parking lot in which the projectionist failed to show.  We got out on the roadway and wandered from car to car – music blaring from each and every one and said “hey man”, smoked pot, and handed along little sheets of paper covered in blotter acid.  A cloud of smoke rose and mingled with the stars and car headlights illuminated dust particles that transmogrified into butterflies and flew off in the evening haze.  By morning Yasgur’s Farm was overrun.

    Occasionally there were gaps between performances as we waited for a new act to arrive.  We all knew the highway had  been shut down, and it was the whirr of helicopter blades that signaled that a band was about to arrive or depart.  It was during those pauses between performances that some poor fool had to stand up in front of the mic and keep the vaguely restless crowd amused.  One of the more inspired moments came at night during a lull in the rain.  The guy at the mic asked everyone to take out a match or a cigarette lighter.  In that crowd anyone who didn’t smoke cigarettes smoked pot so I’d have to guess that all 500,000 people had matches.  Everyone in the audience was to light their match at the count of three.  And for a flicker of instant – it was daylight.

    Someone was run over by a tractor in a field of high grass, a baby was born, people were kind to other people, a lot of people were stoned, everyone was filled with a sense of euphoria.  It’s hard to know why everyone knew to come.  All over the country young people packed their cars, got on airplanes, hitchhiked.  Before I set out I had no idea that the urgency I felt about going – I had to go – was being felt by tens of thousands of other kids in big cities and small towns all across the United States.  There would never be anything like it again. We weren’t just the baby boom generation.  There wouldn’t be a “counter culture” in the same sense again.  It would be possible in the future to stand on the sidewalk at Columbus Circle in New York City next to a pimply-faced boy who couldn’t have be more than 16 years of age and see a “Young Republicans for Ronald Reagan” button on his chest.  Up until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to be young and be a Republican.

    On my way home from upstate in a deli 100 miles from Woodstock I stopped to buy a pack of smokes.  It was easy to spot a fellow traveler; his jeans were caked with mud to the mid-thigh just like my own. For a moment we recognized one another.  We had shared something that created a sense of intimacy between us.  We both smiled.

    One outcome of the unexpected half-a-million strong audience was that no one had the presence of mind to collect the 40,000 tickets that had been sold.  I was one of the 40,000 suckers who paid for Woodstock.  I did take a brief look around to see where we were supposed to show our tickets but there was no evidence of a ticket booth.  Perhaps, it was never set up or maybe it was trampled beyond recognition. I still had my ticket in my mud sodden blue jeans when I got home.  Now it is forty, I am fifty-six and my daughter is exactly the same age I was when I set out with Dale in that gold Dodge Dart headed upstate.


    Susan Silas is a dual American and Hungarian national who has built a diverse career as an artist and writer over the past two decades. She completed her graduate studies at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in 1983 and returned to New York to live and work. She has exhibited her work throughout the United States and in Europe. Her recent projects include Helmbrechts Walk, 1998-2003, which documents her 225 mile walk through Germany and the Czech Republic, retracing the steps of an historical death march at the close of the Second World War. This work will be on view at Hebrew Union College Museum in New York from September 2009 – June 2010. Recent publications include the essay ‘For David Foster Wallace with Love and Squalus’ published in the online literary magazine Exquisite Corpse, and the short story ‘Found Bird,’ published in the online literary magazine Podium. Her artwork and writings are available for viewing at: Susan has also worked as a location scout for major motion pictures. Recent films include: Whatever Works, directed by Woody Allen, Burn After Reading, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Michael Clayton, directed by Tony Gilroy, The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert De Niro and The Devil Wears Prada, directed by David Frankel.

  • August 26, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Thanks for nothing, Texas

    by Sam Hutchins

    Okay, I’ll say this in the nicest way possible: f*ck Texas. F*ck that entire godforsaken excuse for a state. If it weren’t for the abundant natural resources I would mount a one man campaign to give it back to Mexico. Actually, Mexico probably should still govern Texas were all right and just in the world. If Mexico were in possession of the territory they could capitalize on the natural gas and oil fields and our economic imbalance would be lessened. The Battle of the Alamo would stand as an earlier, lessened version of Vietnam, potentially forestalling future military misadventures. On that note, no Texas means no Bush family dynasty and no Iraq war.

    This may seem a lot to extrapolate from the mere act of scouting locations in the state but you didn’t experience what I did there. The entire matter was simply awful. To begin with, we were in the early stages of our national excursion in Iraq and I was in the company of two Frenchmen. As much as I tried to avoid politics it inevitably came up. Being rather patriotic, I felt the need to at least attempt to argue the American perspective. Further, I believed then and do now that the French objection to our invasion had more to do with their unhappiness at not being consulted in the matter than anything else. They are an argumentative people by nature and we were foolish enough to give them good reason to object. So yes, part of my antipathy towards Texas is based in the fact that I was obligated to at least attempt to argue a pro-invasion perspective unwillingly simply due to being in the state.

    Even worse, it is by and large an ugly and desolate state. We were in the depths of our misery at not finding anything remotely interesting to photograph or scout. Driving back roads in Texas means you are really on back roads. Even the average rancher commutes by small plane in that corner of the world; we blew across the horribly ugly landscape at 110 miles per hour for days on end without seeing a single interesting thing. It was flat, ugly, and went on forever. At least the other drivers were courteous. On the rare occasion we overtook someone they invariably pulled over and drove on the shoulder of the road. That was nice of them, however I have to suspect it was a byproduct of driving in such a heavily armed state.

    Another in my long list of grievances about Texas involves the Super Bowl. The night the game was played we were busting ass across west Texas looking for the remotest sign of civilization. Even my pampered French pals would have crashed in a dumpy roadside motel. We couldn’t even find that; there was nothing but sagebrush and stars. This was the first Superbowl I didn’t watch since I was six years old. I had bet a bundle on the Steelers laying six and a half when we passed through Vegas and had a vested interest in the outcome. I wound up frantically searching the airwaves, finding and then losing station after station carrying the game feed. No shortage at all of apocalyptic preachers raving about the democratic menace though. The NFL is so media savvy you can probably catch a radio broadcast of the Super Bowl on the moon, but not in west Texas.

    One of the smarter things I did before setting out cross-country was researching great roadside restaurants. Not to scout, mind you, but to eat in. If I could find someplace that served amazing barbecue I was going to get us there. This was a once in a lifetime experience; when else are you going to get to a legendary rib joint in Prairie View, Texas? So we did, and the food was worth it. The day after the Super Bowl I was celebrating a nice payday and insisted on detouring out of our way to a barbecue shack I had read about. The ribs were indeed spectacular, but holy God I wish we had never had the conversation we did with the waitress. Generations of Frenchmen will be told of this talk and scoff at America for having heard it.

    Our waitress was a cute girl, maybe 17 years old at best. A pale-skinned, freckled west Texas gal. The confusion began when Stephane decided to order a corn dog.

    “What ees thees, ees eet corn?”

    “No, silly, it’s a hot dog battered and deep-fried. I don’t know if there’s any corn in it. You talk funny, where y’all from?”

    “We are both French, we come from Parees.”

    She sucked her breath in sharply.

    “Oh my, I am so proud of you for coming to America. Was it hard to escape from there?”

    “Escape, what do you mean escape? We are allowed to travel freely.”

    “Well I know that is not the fact. They taught us in school that foreigners are held captive, like in Iran and Korea, and that only the lucky ones escape and make it to America. Was it hard getting here?”

    “No, we got on a plane.”

    At this point I was sinking progressively lower in the booth. I’d like to tell you that the waitress was an idiot but she was not. She was well-spoken and alert, she was also a frightening example of what is happening in America. I was able to steer the conversation back to the menu and we ordered, but she could not stay away. Shortly after putting in our order she drifted back to our table.

    “Is it true that they make you have abortions if you have a little baby girl?”

    Darius responded this time.

    “No one forces you to have abortions, you are free to have one anytime you need to.”

    He may as well have slapped her.

    “What? That is a sin. Babies are innocent and killing them is wrong, you go to hell for that.”

    Fortunately, for once, he backpedaled.

    “I have never had one.”

    A look of relief crossed her face and she meandered away. Shortly thereafter she brought our food and it was indeed amazing barbecue. Unfortunately she stuck around for some more chit-chat.

    “I met another foreigner once, he was from Jamaica. Is that close to Paris, France? He said it was always hot there. I think he was a drug dealer. Is it hot in Paris, France?”

    The conversation went on a bit longer but it’s too painful to even relate. Even now, reading the words on the page, it’s hard to believe the sheer level of ignorance we encountered but it’s all true. I sat and wailed at the cosmos, finally understanding just how creationism had become a mandatory science class. We needed to get out of that state. Even the most amazing barbecue wasn’t worth this.



    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.

  • August 24, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Other Orson

    by John Farr

    Citizen Kane casts the longest shadow, but Orson Welles’ other work proves his genius:

    The Stranger (1946)


    Unbeknownst to his comely young bride Mary (Young), East Coast prep-school teacher Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) is actually Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal in hiding. When a German visitor to their sleepy Connecticut town turns up dead, federal gumshoe Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) begins poking around, threatening to bring Rankin’s crimes out of the closet.


    The conventional wisdom is that Welles made “Stranger” to prove he could churn out a Hollywood studio picture on time and with little fuss. That he certainly does. And while the director himself was no big fan of his 1946 Nazi noir thriller, he underestimated his efforts here, as he coaxes fine performances from his stellar cast, especially Robinson (playing against type as a war-crimes investigator), Young, and Konstantin Shayne as the ill-fated visitor. If for no other reason, see this for the final scene at a clock tower, a well-engineered climax that will really leave you hanging!

    The Third Man (1949)


    Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to the rubble of Post World War II Vienna to unravel the mysterious demise of old friend Harry Lyme (Orson Welles). He starts with few clues, and the little information he can gather from various sources simply doesn’t hang together. In this treacherous world of deception and black marketeering, Holly perserveres, aided by a police inspector (Trevor Howard) who’d also like answers. Is Harry Lyme really dead, and if not, why fake his own death?


    One of the all-time great mysteries, the excellence of this production is reflected in the talents of its key contributors: old Mercury Theatre colleagues Welles and Cotten, screenwriter Graham Greene, producers Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, and director Carol Reed. Together, they create an intricate thriller, with corrupted souls inhabiting a decimated city like so many vultures. One of the best uses of music in all film, with Anton Karas’s original zither score adding to the bizarre, ominous proceedings.Stunningly shot on location, this is a must.

    Touch Of Evil (1958)


    Orson Welles’s late noir entry starts with a suspicious killing in a seedy border town, pitting honest Mexican investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) against bigoted, corrupt American cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan, who claims jurisdiction, has no intention of probing into the mystery, quickly finding a young Mexican to serve as scapegoat. Vargas senses a cover-up and begins snooping on his own, placing him and his wife Susie (Vivian Leigh) in jeopardy. Will Mike and his bride live long enough to unravel the conspiracy?


    The director’s original version is restored for this DVD, to powerful effect. Welles creates a desolate night-time world in the dirty town of Los Robles, a forgotten speck on the map where everyone seems to carry a nasty secret. Lurid, almost surreal atmosphere is complemented by uniformly first-rate performances, with Heston and Leigh never better, Welles himself a bloated symbol of moral decay, and Akim Tamiroff memorably slimy as a local crime boss. Don’t miss Marlene Dietrich playing a gypsy- as you might guess, she gets the final word. A cult movie with a capital “C”.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • August 24, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: More Sam Shepard

    by John Farr

    Get your Sam Shepard fix from these recommendations:

    Days of Heaven (1978)


    After fatally injuring his boss in a fit of rage, Chicago steelworker Bill (Richard Gere) flees to Texas in 1916 with girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister, Linda (Linda Manz), where the three find work laboring with other migrants in the lush wheat fields of a lonely, ailing landowner (Sam Shepard). When the handsome farmer falls for Abby, who’s posing as Bill’s other sister, Bill devises a simple, deceitful plan to lift them out of destitution.


    Hailed for his poetic debut “Badlands,” Malick returned five years later with a film every bit as innovative and dreamlike. As adversaries in love with the same woman, the male leads are outstanding, with Gere’s intensity blazing from his eyes and Shepard’s brooding, wary farmer matching him for sheer charisma. Narrated by Bill’s jaded, uneducated sibling, Malick’s film employs an elliptical storytelling technique, but is filled with so many arresting images of pastoral beauty that you never care. With a harrowing, cathartic sequence involving a plague of insects, “Heaven” is a cinematic masterpiece of Southern gothic romance.

    The Right Stuff (1983)


    After pilot Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shepard) conquers psychological demons to break the sound barrier in 1947, N.A.S.A. recruits the hardiest group of fearless pilots it can find to spearhead its space-race program. Ill-fated Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) and squeaky clean John Glenn (Ed Harris) are the first to attempt an orbit of the Earth, but not without danger and dire frustrations, both at home and in the eyes of the public, as the Russians edge closer to the same goal. Eventually, four men, including wild-at-heart flyboy Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), are selected for the Mercury program and groomed for success.


    Adapted from the book by Tom Wolfe, this dynamic, three-hour history lesson recounts the formation of America’s space program through the stories of the daredevils recruited to do the impossible, and “punch a hole in the sky.” Apart from assembling a top-grade cast (Quaid and Harris are marvelous in breakout roles), Kaufman melds testosterone-fueled adventure with poignant family drama, sci-fi with broad All-American slapstick, even nodding to John Ford Westerns in staging cowboy pilot Chuck Yaeger’s breaking of the sound barrier in the California desert. “The Right Stuff” soars as it tracks seven unlikely heroes on a thrilling journey into a brand new era: the Space Age.

    This So-Called Disaster (2003)


    This intriguing film provides an astonishingly intimate glimpse into the intense rehearsals leading up to the 2000 San Francisco production of “The Late Henry Moss,” a play written and directed by Sam Shepard, based partly on the author’s recollections of his own alcoholic father. From initial readings to opening night, we follow the stellar cast, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin, through a remarkable process of preparation.


    “Moss” is a dark, demanding piece, so the rehearsals director Michael Almereyda respectfully captures in “Disaster” are draining for all concerned. What transfixed this fly on the wall was how directors and actors adopt their own language in rehearsing a play–one virtually unintelligible to the layman, but to trained professionals, a pure dialect pinpointing emotion and motivation. “Disaster” is an absolute must for anyone interested in the inner workings of acting and the theatre.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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