Dennis Farina

Get Shorty (1995, Barry Sonnenfeld)

There’s a gentle quality about Get Shorty, an invitation from screenwriter Scott Frank and director Sonnenfeld to dwell. One can also not dwell on the film’s little moments, because it’s got awesome big moments as well. Except Shorty doesn’t have much in the way of set pieces; Sonnenfeld does whatever he can to reduce action and suspense. He’s making a comedy–a likable comedy–not an action thriller. So those big moments come in dialogue and actors’ deliveries. Sonnenfeld and his actors layer their performances in each scene. Sometimes it’s so Sonnenfeld can do a sight gag, sometimes it’s just for the exit laugh. But it creates these fantastic characters who don’t get much chance at narrative progression. Get Shorty is a concise, impeccably constructed, impeccably edited film.

Frank’s script often gives each character a sidekick for a scene. Someone to watch while someone else has a big moment. The way Sonnenfeld directs these scenes is for the sidekick to react–in close-up–while listening. It’s not a big reaction, it gives Martin Ferrero a few nice scenes and lets Rene Russo excel in her scream queen turned producer part. Russo’s story is always in relation to the boys–lead John Travolta as her new beau, Gene Hackman as her Corman-esque Svengali, Danny DeVito as her movie star ex-husband–but she still gets to have a real, consequential part. And not because of action, but because of her character’s decisions, which the audience gets to see Russo make thanks to Sonnenfeld’s deliberate approach.

Get Shorty is also perfectly acted. No one gives anything less than an excellent performance (even Bette Midler in a cameo) but there are some particularly exceptional ones (i.e. Travolta). The thing about Get Shorty is it doesn’t ask Travolta to be a movie star. It asks him to be a character actor. Even though Travolta’s the lead, Get Shorty is far more of an ensemble piece. Each actor is intentionally memorable–the way Donald Peterman lights them, the way Jim Miller cuts them, the way Sonnenfeld composes the shot–even the bit players are intentionally memorable. It creates an exceptionally affable mood.

Of course, it’s also about Hollywood. The dream of Hollywood, filtered through Travolta’s exuberant nostalgia. Travolta and Russo have these side conversations about old movies; I wonder if Frank wrote the whole conversation or just cut in. It’s all handled perfectly. But with a couple exceptions, it’s not about “real” Hollywood. It’s about everyone’s dream of it. Whether it’s Travolta’s, Hackman’s, Russo’s, Delroy Lindo’s.

Delroy Lindo.

Delroy Lindo gives the film’s greatest performance. He stands out among all the standouts. He stands out in a film where Dennis Farina is able to so exactly embody his caricature, it becomes magic. Because Lindo has the task of being dangerous, loathsome, likable. You’re watching Get Shorty, you’re hoping Lindo gets his comeuppance, but not too soon.

No one else can do these roles. No one else is imaginable in these roles. Sonnenfeld gets the audience buy-in early, sort of doing a “pilot” for the film before the opening titles. There’s a concise little narrative, an introduction to Travolta and nemesis Farina, then the titles. The titles hinting at what’s to come, John Lurie’s Booker T-esque score excitedly dragging things out. Sonnenfeld makes you impatient to watch this Get Shorty picture he’s teasing.

Get Shorty’s great. I’ve always thought so, but it’s been over a decade since I’ve seen it so I’m really glad it’s so great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard; director of photography, Donald Peterman; edited by Jim Miller; music by John Lurie; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring John Travolta (Chili Palmer), Gene Hackman (Harry Zimm), Rene Russo (Karen Flores), Danny DeVito (Martin Weir), Dennis Farina (Ray Bones), Delroy Lindo (Bo), James Gandolfini (Bear), Jon Gries (Ronnie), Martin Ferrero (Tommy), Miguel Sandoval (Mr. Escobar), Jacob Vargas (Yayo), Linda Hart (Fay Devoe) and David Paymer (Leo Devoe).


Sidewalks of New York (2001, Edward Burns)

Sidewalks of New York is Edward Burns embracing the idea of becoming the WASP Woody Allen. Well, Burns is Irish Catholic, so not exactly the WASP Woody Allen… but something nearer to it than not. It’s his attempt at making a quintessential New York movie while being aware he’s making a quintessential New York movie.

And he partially succeeds. Even with one enormous—so enormous I’m tempted to call it ginormous (even if Oxford thinks it’s a word, I don’t)—problem, Sidewalks is a good film. It’s an extremely finished, safe film, but it’s a good one.

What’s so striking about the film is how comfortable Burns gets with his cast. It isn’t the traditional Burns cast—these aren’t Irish guys on Long Island, it’s a bunch of New Yorkers from the boroughs transplanted to Manhattan.

It’s somewhat anti-Manhattan, actually, even though every scene except one is set there.

The acting is all wonderful, particularly from Rosario Dawson (who, unfortunately, is victim of the ginormous problem), Brittany Murphy and David Krumholtz. Burns is good, but he really doesn’t give himself a big role. He usually lets Dennis Farina (who’s hilarious) overpower their scenes. Stanley Tucci is good, just giving an excellent Tucci performance. Heather Graham is sort of out of her league, sort of not. My favorite is when she can’t help laughing at Tucci.

In smaller roles, Michael Leydon Campbell, Nadja Dajani and Libby Langdon are excellent.

It’s Burns being unambitious and gloriously so—that statement’s a compliment.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Frank Prinzi ; edited by David Greenwald; produced by Margot Bridger, Burns, Cathy Schulman and Rick Yorn; released by Paramount Classics.

Starring Edward Burns (Tommy), Rosario Dawson (Maria), Dennis Farina (Carpo), Heather Graham (Annie), David Krumholtz (Ben), Brittany Murphy (Ashley), Stanley Tucci (Griffin), Michael Leydon Campbell (Gio / Harry), Nadia Dajani (Hilary), Callie Thorne (Sue) and Libby Langdon (Make-up Girl).


Purple Violets (2007, Edward Burns)

I’ve been avoiding seeing Purple Violets for almost four years–I thought it was going to be one of Burns’s lesser works. So, obviously, it shouldn’t be a surprise it’s his best film (it’s also his best film as a director).

I’m having some trouble trying to figure out how to start talking about it. It’s different from his usual approach to scripting, maybe because he has a clear protagonist here and it’s Selma Blair. It’s her film–even though the other three principals, Patrick Wilson, Burns and Debra Messing, get significant scenes to themselves.

For a while, there’s this juxtaposing of story lines–Blair and Messing opposite Wilson and Burns. Then the characters start crossing over and everything comes together in a completely organic way. Halfway through the film, the plot is still unpredictable. Even the last scene is, to some degree, unpredictable. It’s all incredibly delicate.

Blair’s great, which wasn’t a surprise. The surprise was Patrick Wilson. His part is a somewhat regular guy and he turns it into this constantly surprising, deep performance (Burns’s script helps). Burns gives maybe his best performance ever here. He’s kind of making fun of himself, but also not. Messing is another surprise. She takes what could be a sitcom harpy and turns it into a lovely performance.

And Donal Logue–as a Brit–is great.

The PT Walkley score and the William Rexer photography are amazing.

From the first shot–thanks to Walkley and Rexer–it’s clear Burns probably has something phenomenal here.

Then he delivers.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, William Rexer; edited by Thom Zimny; music by PT Walkley; production designer, John Nyomarkay; produced by Margot Bridger, Burns, Aaron Lubin, Nicole Marra and Pamela Schein Murphy; released by iTunes.

Starring Selma Blair (Patti Petalson), Patrick Wilson (Brian Callahan), Edward Burns (Michael Murphy), Debra Messing (Kate Scott), Dennis Farina (Gilmore), Max Baker (Mark), Elizabeth Reaser (Bernie) and Donal Logue (Chazz Coleman).


Thief (1981, Michael Mann)

With Thief, Mann leaves plain an American standard–the gangster movie. Halfway through the film, I wondered how it fit, as the energy the film opens with is gone. The film moves these awkwardly handled scenes without much flare. These scenes are presented as the standard dramatic scenes, but with something not quite right about the storytelling in these very familiar scenes. Then it becomes clear.

During the big jewel heist–which Mann could play as an audio and visual feast, but doesn’t–instead he sucks the romance out of the cinematic glitz. In the dystopian bleakness of Thief, nothing matters (not a philosophy Mann could hold on to for long), not friends, not family.

As protagonist James Caan moves through this mobster’s house, even though it’s a crime figure’s home, it’s lived in, versus Caan’s, which looks like a photograph. Seeing Caan in that setting, it’s clear how his presence in that house, in everyone else’s lives too, reveals it all to be a complete illusion. Anything not as bleak and empty as Caan is false.

Caan is great. Tuesday Weld is great. James Belushi’s really good, which is odd, as is Robert Prosky. Willie Nelson is good in his two scenes.

In the second of Nelson’s scenes, it’s clear Caan’s not a reliable narrator and Mann forces a barrier between the audience and the film. The film exists on its own. The characters aren’t beholden to the viewing experience of the audience. Thief‘s contemptuous of such a relationship.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay and story by Mann, based on a book by John Seybold; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Ronnie Caan; released by United Artists.

Starring James Caan (Frank), Tuesday Weld (Jessie), Willie Nelson (Okla), James Belushi (Barry), Robert Prosky (Leo), Tom Signorelli (Attaglia), Dennis Farina (Carl), Nick Nickeas (Nick), W.R. Brown (Mitch), Norm Tobin (Guido) and John Santucci (Urizzi).


Striking Distance (1993, Rowdy Herrington)

If it weren’t for the fantastic Brad Fiedel music (until the end credits) and the Pittsburgh locations (the city really is underutilized as a filming location, with Striking Distance taking fantastic advantage of its mix of urban, green and water), there’d be nothing to distinguish this one. It’s a B movie given a high profile because Bruce Willis is the star. Additionally, a lot of the supporting cast is solid and recognizable–but auteur Rowdy Herrington doesn’t have much control of them, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Willis, for instance, turns in a performance with less depth than if he were selling hair products (maybe to explain his strange, long in the back, pseudo-mullet in the film). Dennis Farina’s awful, clearly needing firmer direction. But Tom Sizemore and Robert Pastorelli are both good. Pastorelli’s actually great in some parts, running loose without having to worry about anyone telling him to stop. Brion James and John Mahoney are both solid in smaller parts. Sarah Jessica Parker isn’t at all believable as Willis’s partner, but she’s not terrible.

The film has, for such a solid production environment, some lame cinematography courtesy Mac Ahlberg, who shot a lot of B movies… so maybe it does fit. Herrington tries to combine a Bruce Willis cop movie with a serial killer thriller, but directed like a horror movie. It succeeds in being incredibly watchable, if completely unrewarding.

There’s a strange amount of bare chested Willis; his shirts apparently go to pieces on touch.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Rowdy Herrington; written by Herrington and Marty Kaplan; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Pasquale Buba and Mark Helfrich; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Gregg Fonseca; produced by Arnon Milchan, Tony Thomopoulos and Hunt Lowry; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (Det. Tom Hardy), Sarah Jessica Parker (Jo Christman), Dennis Farina (Capt. Nick Detillo), Tom Sizemore (Det. Danny Detillo), Brion James (Det. Eddie Eiler), Robert Pastorelli (Det. Jimmy Detillo), Timothy Busfield (Tony Sacco), John Mahoney (Lt. Vince Hardy), Andre Braugher (Dist. Atty. Frank Morris), Tom Atkins (Sgt. Fred Hardy), Mike Hodge (Capt. Penderman) and Jodi Long (Officer Kim Lee).


Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest)

Some time in the 1990s, Charles Grodin said in an interview no one wanted him to do a sequel with Robert De Niro, only ones with him and dogs. Midnight Run is one of the last great comedies (though the genre seems to be on the rise again). It’s an ideal motion picture comedy, with Grodin and De Niro working perfectly together. But what’s so striking about the film isn’t so much their developing relationship, but De Niro’s lead role. Run is from De Niro’s choosy period (it’s hard, watching the film, to think he’d ever have a non-choosy period) and, in a lot of ways, it’s his finest work since Raging Bull. De Niro’s character is entirely defined by how he relates to other people–it always occurs to me we never get to see where he lives–and De Niro still turns it into this sweeping, affecting portrayal of an unchangeable man changed.

Of course, De Niro gets a lot of help from the script. The rest of Gallo’s career is so startlingly unspectacular, one has to wonder if any uncredited rewrites were done on Midnight Run (and by whom… though I guess director Brest is a solid suspect). Gallo’s obscenity-laden dialogue comes off, in terms of linguistic somersaults, like a Marx routine. It’s mesmerizing to watch De Niro rant. There’s one particular scene, with him on the phone, surrounded by staring people, vociferating curses–it’s just fantastic. De Niro brings a self-awareness to the character, even though the script gives him a lot to work with. Where Midnight Run stands out is in the intricate ground situation, De Niro’s character is brimming with angst–“silence and rage,” as Grodin puts it at one point–but we never get to it laid out for us. Gradually, as they become closer, De Niro reveals all to Grodin, but never with verbosity–and we already know almost everything he’s telling Grodin anyway. The significance is in his personal revelation.

Grodin’s the solid straight man. It’s a lot like other Grodin performances, except in his genuine empathy, which mixes well with his irksome behavior. It doesn’t astound or anything, but no one else could have played the role.

The supporting cast is remarkable. Yaphet Kotto and John Ashton both create these unparalleled characters (neither are, to my knowledge, remembered for their outstanding work). Ashton makes his dumb bounty hunter both vicious and funny, earning some degree of viewer sympathy; he’s not likable, but he’s endearing. Kotto’s FBI agent in pursuit has great lines, but also develops into this superb human being throughout the picture.

Dennis Farina’s great as the villain. He manages to be hilarious while still being terrifying. Joe Pantoliano’s good in a small, but visible, role. Richard Foronjy and Robert Miranda are funny as two dimwitted, but effective, low-level mobsters.

As for Brest, it’s hard to know what to say about him. His direction is amazing, maybe best exemplified with a hilarious car chase and a harrowing trade-off. The car chase, though fantastic, never seems unrealistic and the trade-off, even though I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times, is always suspenseful. There’s also how he manages the film’s multiple locations as De Niro and Grodin move cross-country without ever losing the visual tone.

I’ve saved the last paragraph for Danny Elfman. Midnight Run is one of his early scores, his fifth or sixth. It might be his best. Midnight Run, from the opening title, clearly has a great, integral score. It’s impossible to think of the film without the score, without this score, from Elfman. It, just like most of the film, is perfect.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Martin Brest; written by George Gallo; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Chris Lebenzon, Michael Tronick and Billy Weber; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Angelo P. Graham; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Robert De Niro (Jack Walsh), Charles Grodin (Jonathan Mardukas), Yaphet Kotto (FBI Agent Alonzo Mosely), John Ashton (Marvin Dorfler), Dennis Farina (Jimmy Serrano), Joe Pantoliano (Eddie Moscone), Richard Foronjy (Tony Darvo), Robert Miranda (Joey), Jack Kehoe (Jerry Geisler), Wendy Phillips (Gail), Danielle DuClos (Denise Walsh) and Philip Baker Hall (Sidney).


Bottle Shock (2008, Randall Miller)

I have to make a disclosure. I try to drink the highest Robert Parker rated wine I can afford. They’ve tended to be French. Actually, I think they’ve all been French. But whatever.

Because Bottle Shock seems rather like advertising for Napa Valley wine, so much so, I’d love to see who financed it. There should have been a disclosure (one way or the other), it’s so much of a commercial. And as a commercial, Bottle Shock does a fine job. It’s a good impression of one of those charming, Miramax-released little comedy dramas from the late 1990s. Some of these also even starred Alan Rickman. It’s got a reasonably appealing cast (in the Miramax version, the actors would be better known) and it’s a diverting couple hours.

Where Bottle Shock fails as a film is having real characters or real drama. In fact, it runs away from ever having either. The inevitable American win is foretold in the opening voiceover (the film’s use of voiceover is inane, but I guess they had a bunch of helicopter shots of Napa Valley and didn’t want to subject the viewer to any more of composer Mark Adler’s gratingly affable theme music)–there’s no suspense when it comes to the actual tasting. At best, the film could have shown the French response… instead, it’s barely implied. Having Rickman be the pseudo-Frenchman of the film (a francophile Brit) is, regardless of historical accuracy, not very filmic. The wine tasting is also cut in half–the film only shows the half relating to the film’s story, which makes certain subplots entirely wasted.

But the film also forgets about a lot. Take Freddy Rodriguez’s proud vineyard worker slash winemaker who briefly romances Rachael Taylor (who’s bad, but nowhere near as atrocious as usual and far better than Eliza Dushku, who has a glorified cameo) and fights bigotry where he finds it. Rodriguez plays a big part in the beginning, but then disappears. Chris Pine–as Pullman’s son–takes over the focus, as well as Taylor’s affections. The scene where Rodriguez and Taylor resolve their romance is missing, presumably cut to give Pine (the man who will be Kirk) more screen time.

Pine’s not bad. He’s not particularly good, either, but every single character in the film is so poorly written, it’s impossible to tell what he’d do. Actually, all signs are positive. He and Pullman do have one or two honest scenes; the movie’s so blissfully mediocre, it’s impossible to fault it for not being better.

Pullman and Rickman–and Dennis Farina–phone in their performances but they’re all excellent at what they’re doing. Rickman makes fun of being British, Farina makes a Chicago reference, and Pullman is sturdy but complicated. All things they’ve been doing for fifteen years. Bottle Shock should be Pine or Rodriguez’s film (Rodriguez is a tad broad however), but the script doesn’t allow it. The movie’s got to be about advertising that Napa Valley wine, not the characters. The end text reminds these are real people in the story and presumably bound to faithful retelling… it just doesn’t make their stories interesting. The characters, like I said before, are terrible–they’re out of TV commercials.

Randall Miller’s direction is annoying. He’s got some big cranes and a lot of helicopters and uses them all the time. He shoots the movie Panavision–I’m hoping to get the expanse of the vineyards in frame–but then does shaky handheld for conversation scenes. It adds to the movie’s air of incompetence. It’s not a charming air either.

Failing comparisons to those Miramax low budget charmers aside, Bottle Shock isn’t awful and it’s diverting enough. If it were a television movie, it’d probably be exceptional. Well, maybe if it were on USA or something, it’d be exceptional. I just wish they’d given some of the fine actors–Miguel Sandoval’s in it and I don’t even want to talk about the tiny (but wonderfully acted) Bradley Whitford appearance–characters to play instead of advertising to deliver.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Randall Miller; screenplay by Miller, Jody Savin and Ross Schwartz, based on a story by Schwartz, Lannette Pabon, Savin and Miller; director of photography, Mike Ozier; edited by Miller and Dan O’Brien; music by Mark Adler; production designer, Craig Stearns; produced by Miller, Savin, J. Todd Harris, Marc Toberoff, Brenda Lhormer and Marc Lhormer; released by Freestyle Releasing.

Starring Bill Pullman (Jim Barrett), Alan Rickman (Steven Spurrier), Chris Pine (Bo Barrett), Freddy Rodriguez (Gustavo Brambila), Rachael Taylor (Sam Clayton), Dennis Farina (Maurice Cantavale), Miguel Sandoval (Garcia), Eliza Dushku (Joe), Bradley Whitford (Professor Saunders) and Joe Regalbuto (Bill).


Manhunter (1986, Michael Mann), the restored director’s cut

The last time I watched Manhunter (the first time I saw the director’s cut), my friend maintained the film’s superiority laid in the added scenes. The director’s cut mostly features more scenes concerning the effect of manhunting serial killers on William Petersen’s character. On this viewing, it’s clear the film’s greatness isn’t so simply assigned. While Manhunter‘s approach to the serial killer genre–the emphasis on the investigation’s psychological destruction–and those additional scenes to contribute, it isn’t the only factor. Also incredibly important, maybe just as important, is Mann’s humanization of Tom Noonan’s serial killer. Manhunter‘s actually at its lowest point when the Petersen-centric plot comes to a close. A lot has gone on (even though the film’s approach to police stings–a distant one, without explaining anything to the viewer–is brilliant) and it seems like it’s not going anywhere, the film switches focus to Noonan and becomes something wholly new. Mann doesn’t juxtapose the characters, he doesn’t mirror them; the scenes are totally unrelated, except in the beat when Petersen has his eureka and Noonan has his meltdown. And then it’s only stylized cinema.

Mann’s approach to the filmmaking, the vibrant colors, the singular composition (I can’t imagine what it must have looked like on a big screen), the synthesizer soundtrack, wows. It sets Manhunter apart not just from every other serial killer movie but also every other Mann film. He takes what is, at most times, a small and quiet story and makes it as big as Cinerama. The realization montages are still unparalleled and the procedural investigation ones are spectacular as well. But Mann’s best scene, maybe his best scene as a director, is still that walk down the supermarket aisle where the boxes don’t match from shot to shot. The way he opens it up. It’s absolutely brilliant.

All of the acting is good. Petersen isn’t perfect, but he has some great moments. His “my man” line reading, combined with the score and the sound, is great film. Noonan’s great, as are Joan Allen and Brian Cox. Dennis Farina, back before he had his schtick down, is also good. Only Stephen Lang is a little broad, though it’s probably intentional, as he is playing a tabloid reporter. The best performance in the film is Kim Greist, though Mann’s probably responsible for it.

I always think about turnarounds–quality turnarounds–and I think Manhunter‘s the best example of one with a bump-up (due to the Noonan focus) from superior genre picture to an actual masterpiece. It’s strange, because I can remember it getting monotonous in the middle, but I’d never use that word to describe the film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay by Mann, based on a novel by Thomas Harris; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Michel Rubini; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Richard Roth; released by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.

Starring William Petersen (Will Graham), Kim Greist (Molly Graham), Joan Allen (Reba McClane), Brian Cox (Dr. Hannibal Lecktor), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Tom Noonan (Francis Dollarhyde), Stephen Lang (Freddy Lounds), David Seaman (Kevin Graham), Benjamin Hendrickson (Dr. Frederick Chilton), Michael Talbott (Geehan), Dan Butler (Jimmy Price), Michele Shay (Beverly Katz), Robin Moseley (Sarah), Paul Perri (Dr. Sidney Bloom) and Patricia Charbonneau (Mrs. Sherman).


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