Tag Archives: Dennis Farina

Paparazzi 


Paparazzi is one of those ones that probably sounded pretty silly on paper, but one of the studio execs had a good sense of humour on a morning after getting laid and said “aw hell, green light this just for kicks.” It doesn’t hurt to have Mel Gibson as a producer either, who also makes the teensiest cameo. The concept is simple: action film star Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser) is harassed by a sleazy hyena pack of determined celebrity photographers, until they take it one step too far, resulting in tragedy. Bo then plays the art imitating life card, goes all vigilante on them and quite literally hunts each one down and kills them. A synopsis like that has to illicit a dark chuckle from anyone who reads it, and you’d think the resulting film would be oodles of fun, but they’ve somewhat played it safe. A concept this ridiculous should be over the top, reach for the stars insane, a hard R black comedy Death Wish set in Hollywood, if you will. What we get is something more on the glossy side, the filmmakers dipping their toe into the pond of potential, yet never saying ‘fuck it’ and diving right in. The paparazzos are played to the heights of hilarity by a solid scumbag troupe: Tom Sizemore is so perfect as their a-hole ringleader, just a dime piece of a casting choice. Daniel Baldwin looks seriously haggard, while Tom Hollander and Kevin ‘Wainegro’ Gage round out this quartet. Dennis Farina is fun as a sharp, shrewd Detective who gets wise to Bo’s act as well. It’s all serviceable, and yet I wish it went that extra mile to give us something downright shocking and memorable. Perhaps they should have reworked the script, brought in a wild card director and gone the indie route. Oh well. 

-Nate Hill

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The Last Rites Of Joe May: A Review by Nate Hill

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The Last Rites of Joe May is Dennis Farina’s bittersweet swan song, his final exodus from a long, epic and beloved career, showcasing the actor in the role he was always meant to play, and a lead role no less. He did a few other films after this one and a priceless cameo on Family Guy, but this is the spiritual final entry, and when you look at the story of the film, it’s both eerie and fateful that the man would go on to pass away just a few years later. He plays Joe May here, a Chicago wiseguy and short money hustler who has been in the hospital with pneumonia for almost a year. Upon returning to his borough, he finds his apartment rented out to a woman (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter (Meredith Droeger), all his belongings sold, and his presence pretty much forgotten, with some even under the belief that he has died. The woman takes pity on him and let’s him stay in his apartment with them if he helps her out, and he goes back to the same hustling, or at least tries too. All his ventures have gone dry, his former boss (a splendid Gary Cole) giving the cold shoulder. Joe starts to realize that one must face the eventual consequences of a life lived in selfishness and foolhardy actions, as he finds himself alone in the world and shunned even by his own son. He gets a shot at redemption upon having the little girl in his life, and being there to help out her mother who has one lowlife monster of a boyfriend that just happens to be a cop. Farina is sensational in every scene, and it’s a shame the guy didn’t ever get more lead roles. He makes Joe a grim yet sympathetic being who serves as a sorrowful reminder of how we all will arrive at the end of our road someday, and how important it is to line said road with good deeds, kindness, respect and worthwhile ventures, even if they only show up in the last few miles of it. This is a Tribeca festival film so it’s tough to find, but anyone with a love for Farina or simple, well told and emotional stories should definitely check it out. The beautiful piano score adds to the loneliness of Joe and his state of mind, as does Farina’s performance which a a gift to filmgoers and contains see of the hardest work and piercing truth I’ve ever seen from the guy. RIP.

CRIME STORY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Fresh from the success of Miami Vice in the mid-1980’s, Michael Mann parlayed his powerful clout within the industry to produce a new television show entitled, Crime Story. It was a pet project that he developed with good friend Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger. Like Vice, Crime Story was a cop show but set in the early 1960s and with a grittier, darker edge as opposed to the stylish, brightly-lit pastel look of its predecessor. To this end, Mann not only cast Hollywood outsider Dennis Farina (whose unconventional looks must’ve terrified NBC executives), but had exploitation filmmaker Abel Ferrara direct the pilot episode. The result is a lean, mean drama that features politically incorrect police officers battling it out with nasty criminals.

The pilot episode for Crime Story begins with a daring restaurant robbery gone badly. Del Shannon sings “Runaway” (re-recorded especially for the show) as the hold-up turns into a hostage situation. Three police detectives led by Mike Torello (Farina) race to the scene (blink and you’ll miss a young Michael Rooker as a beat cop). No words are spoken between the men as they calmly check their guns and get ready. As the criminals are about to take off with their hostages, Torello leans in menacingly and says to one goon, “You hurt anybody else, when this is all over I’m gonna find what you love the most and I’m gonna kill it. Your mother, your father, your dog. Don’t matter what it is – it’s dead.” Welcome to the world of Crime Story.

It turns out that the criminals are working for local wise guy Ray Luca (Anthony Denison), a vicious thug with a short fuse and an awesome pompadour that defies gravity. This guy isn’t afraid to smash bottles and furniture over hapless underlings to get his point across. Luca plans to steal some valuable European royalty jewels from the Lakeshore Museum but Torello intends to link the restaurant robbery to the thug and stop the heist from going down.

Mann has said that he was influenced by working on the Police Story T.V. series (1973-1977), which was run by playwright Liam O’Brien and included famous crime writer, Joseph Wambaugh (who wrote The Onion Field) as a contributor. Each episode was based on a real event, working with the policeman whose story it was based on. Mann “learned a lot about writing and about working with real guys.” Crime Story was based on the experiences of Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago police detective of 17 years. He claimed that the stories featured on the show were composites rather than actual events that happened, “but they’ll be accurate.” According to Mann, the genesis of the project was to follow a group of police officers in a major crimes unit in 1963 and how they change over 20 hours of television. He asked Reininger and Adamson to write the series pilot and a “Bible.”

Reininger was a former Wall Street international investment banker who had come to Mann’s attention based on a screenplay he had written about arson investigators, and a French film that he had written and produced. Reininger researched Crime Story by winning the confidence of Detective William Hanhardt who put him in touch with undercover officers in Chicago. They sent him on meetings with organized crime figures. Reininger risked wearing a body microphone and recorder. After visiting the crime scene of a gruesome gangland slaying of bookmaker Al Brown, Reininger backed off his Mob interviews.

Mann said that the first season of the show would go from Chicago in 1963 to Las Vegas in 1980 where the characters would have “very different occupations, in a different city and in a different time.” He said, “It’s a serial in the sense that we have continuing stories, and in that sense the show is one big novel.” Mann and Reininger’s inspiration for the 1963-1980 arc came from their mutual admiration of the epic 15+ hour film, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Mann said, “The pace of our story is like the speed of light compared to that, but that’s the idea – if you put it all together at the end you’ve got one hell of a 22-hour movie.”

NBC President Brandon Tartikoff gave an order for a two-hour movie, which had a theatrical release in a handful of U.S. theaters to invited guests only. Tartikoff also ordered 22 episodes which allowed Reininger and Adamson to tell a story with developing character arcs, and continuing stories (instead of episodic, self standing shows). Mann predicted a five-year network run for the show. However, due to budgetary constraints (the need for four sets of vintage cars proved to be too expensive). Tartikoff eventually allowed their series to move to Las Vegas for the last quarter of the 22 episodes. By the second season, an average episode cost between $1.3 and 1.4 million because it was shot on location, set during the 1960s and featured a large cast.

However, they realized that it was too expensive to go through several different period changes in one season. Universal Pictures decided not to make Crime Story because they deemed it too expensive and a small studio called New World Pictures Ltd. stepped up to finance it. It allowed them to work in the big leagues with a major T.V. network like NBC and a chance to sell the show overseas while Universal would retain the domestic syndication rights. The production schedule was a grueling two episodes every three weeks shooting 12 hours a day or more every day of the week.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Crime Story is the look, the attention to period detail. Hilda Stark worked as an art director on the pilot and was asked back by Mann after seven episodes to be the production designer. To achieve the show’s period look, she and her team would go to second-hand and antique stores, run ads in the in newspapers seeking articles from the period, and sometimes build furniture if they could not find it. According to Stark, the overall design or look of the show featured “a lot of exaggerated lines. We go for high style – sleek lines and high style…We go for the exaggerated shapes that recall the era.” Stark and her team also came up with a color scheme for the show that featured “saturated color, and certain combinations – black, fuchsias – reminiscent of the ‘50s.” She finds inspiration from a library of old books and magazines, in particular Life. For the vintage cars in the show, they would buy or rent from private owners.

It’s a testimony to Mann’s reputation at the time that Crime Story was even greenlighted. NBC would have never gone for the casting of Dennis Farina, with his pockmarked face and lack of acting experience, had Mann been a neophyte producer with no proven track record. The choice of cult film director Abel Ferrara must have also freaked out network execs. His previous films included The Driller Killer (1979), where a deranged psycho gruesomely kills people with a power tool, and Ms. 45 (1981), where a rape survivor viciously kills the men who attacked her with a .45 pistol.

And yet, the final product proves that Mann’s instincts were right on the money. Farina delivers the hard-boiled dialogue with the perfect amount of intensity (Torello orders a loose cannon cop, “Why don’t you get unconscious for awhile.”). You can see it in his eyes and the way he barks out orders that this a no-nonsense guy who isn’t going to let anything get in the way of his job. In many respects, he is the prototype for Al Pacino’s equally driven cop in Mann’s Heat (1995). Farina’s Torello is the prototypical Mann protagonist: professional and a perfectionist, all at the expense of everything else.

Ferrara directs with the same proficient skill of crime auteur, Don Siegel. Like Siegel’s two best crime films, Charley Varrick (1973) and The Killers (1964), Crime Story depicts a harsh world where life is cheap and characters will do anything – even if it means bending or breaking the law – to achieve their goals. Crime Story would provide the blueprint for Ferrara’s later forays into urban crime films like The King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992).

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One of the most striking aspects about Crime Story is that it feels like it was ripped right from the pages of a James Ellroy novel. It is even more surprising that this show was done before Ellroy had written his famous L.A. Quartet of books that featured L.A. Confidential, which Crime Story most closely resembles. The author claims that he hadn’t seen the show until after he wrote these novels but he does admit to being a fan since then. In an interview with Paul Duncan, Ellroy said, “I think Dennis Farina as Lieutenant Mike Torello is a force of nature. When the hatred between him and Anthony Denison fuels the plot, it’s great, it’s epic. but after a while it just goes to hell.”

MIDNIGHT RUN – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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One of the most popular trends in the 1980s cinema was the buddy-action film. The best ones to come out of this period were 48 HRS. (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), and Midnight Run (1988), which spawned numerous imitators and sequels. Along with Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run is arguably the genre’s last gasp before slipping into formulaic predictability and self-parody (see Rush Hour, Blue Streak, et al). What makes Midnight Run so good, even after all these years, is the unbeatable combination of an excellent cast, a witty script and solid direction.

Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter hired by his bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) to find and transport to Los Angeles, one Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) — a.k.a. “The Duke,” an accountant who stole $15 million from Las Vegas gangster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). What is initially a simple “midnight run” from New York City to Los Angeles, turns into the road trip from hell as Walsh and Mardukas are pursued across the country via plane, train, and automobile by dim-witted gangsters, frustrated FBI agents led by Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), and a rival bounty hunter named Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton).

While this film may be a comedy, Brest lets us know right from the get-go that it’s going to have a slightly unpredictable edge to it as Walsh is almost killed by a deadbeat he’s supposed to bring in. If that wasn’t bad enough, his guy is almost snatched away from him by Dorfler. I like that Brest takes the time to show Walsh doing his job and that he’s good at it. The bounty hunter is able to track down and find Mardukas where the Feds and the Mob were unable.

Brest wastes no time introducing the film’s various antagonists starting with Mosely who approaches Walsh on the street. The bounty hunter quickly finds himself surrounded by four FBI agents. Walsh knows what they want and gives them nothing but smartass replies to their questions. Yaphet Kotto doesn’t play Mosely as an inept bumbler but instead brings an impressive intensity to the role that makes his character something of an intimidating figure which, of course, makes his kind of incompetent lackeys that much funnier the more frustrated he gets when they are repeatedly unable to catch Walsh and Markdukas. For example, there’s the withering glare Mosely gives one of his flunkies when he states the painfully obvious – that Walsh has his identification.

Midnight Run
adheres to the basic formula of the buddy-action film with two diametrically opposed characters teaming up to fight the bad guys. Inevitably, humorous situations arise from constant bickering while the duo shoots, punches, and fights their way out of action-packed set pieces. Ultimately, what makes Midnight Run work so well is how it messes around with the formula. Instead of having one funny guy and one straight man, you have two straight men with De Niro and Grodin. And yet it works, due in large part to the skill of the two leads who complement each other perfectly — De Niro plays Walsh as a gruff, foul-mouthed guy constantly annoyed by Grodin’s clean-cut accountant, armed with a seemingly endless supply of personal questions to ask his traveling companion. Their scenes together seem very spontaneous and real as they annoy the hell out of each other.

Fresh from his scene-stealing appearance in The Untouchables (1987), Robert De Niro was eager to try something different. He wanted to do a comedy and to this end, pursued the lead role in Penny Marshall’s film, Big (1988). Marshall was interested but the studio was not and thankfully the role went to Tom Hanks. Martin Brest, who directed Beverly Hills Cop, had found another script by George Gallo in the same vein — one that blended elements of comedy and action. He sent it to De Niro and was very up front with the actor: Midnight Run was a commercial film, not an in-depth character study. Regardless, De Niro researched his role by working with real-life bounty hunters and police officers.

Paramount was originally interested in backing Midnight Run but they wanted a big name star opposite De Niro in order to improve the film’s chances at the box office. Their production executives suggested that the Mardukas character be changed to a woman and wanted Cher for the role in the hopes that she would provide some “sexual overtones.” Brest wisely rejected the idea and so Paramount suggested teaming De Niro up with Robin Williams. Williams was a big star in his own right and eager to get the role. He even offered to do an audition for Brest — a rarity for the comedian whose name alone could green light projects. However, Brest was impressed by Charles Grodin’s audition with De Niro. The director felt that there was a real chemistry between the two actors. As a result, Paramount backed out and the studio’s president Ned Tanen claimed that the budget became too high and decided that “it wasn’t worth it.” Universal Pictures became interested in the project. It is to Brest’s credit that he supported Grodin down the line and refused to change his decision despite studio pressure.

Brest brought Grodin aboard with the understanding that the actor would have the opportunity to improvise. Grodin was very much open to De Niro’s improvisational technique. He remembered that De Niro “was all about ‘work,’ plain and simple, and being with him felt like breathing pure oxygen.” Some of their best scenes feel like the screenplay was just thrown out and that they simply riffed off one another. For example, the night boxcar scene where Walsh and Mardukas bond, after illegally stowing away on a train, was improvised entirely.

Much of Midnight Run’s humor comes from these moments as they constantly antagonize each other. This relationship is believable because the film takes the time to develop it with many scenes where the two men just talk, and this allows us to get to know them. Most buddy films spend only the bare minimum amount of time on character development and instead cram as many action set pieces and explosions in as possible. As a result, we do not become attached to the characters. Midnight Run does not fall into this trap.

For all of its commercial elements, George Gallo’s script has very strong, three-dimensional characters that transcend their stereotypes. It was the script that first drew Grodin to the project. He said in an interview that “the script had dimension beyond what I’m used to seeing. The dimension of character. It looked like a good action-adventure genre picture with strong character evolution.” De Niro, being the consummate actor that he is, still manages to inject little touches and details, like a habit of constantly checking his faulty watch, or the nice bit of comedy when he checks out Mosely’s identification that he pickpocketed during their first meeting. De Niro walks away from the camera only to quickly turn around and flash the stolen ID in an amusing parody of an FBI agent. It is these little bits of business that provide insights into his character. Brest commented in an interview that, “sometimes I’d let the camera run after finishing a scene to see if he did any bits, and invariably he did.”

From the two leads to the rest of the supporting cast, each character is given a moment or two to say or do something that makes them distinctive and funny. For example, there is John Ashton as Dorfler, a rival bounty hunter who falls for the same stupid trick every time. Dorfler is not just some generic bounty hunter. Ashton transforms him into a self-absorbed idiot who is completely oblivious to the big picture. Even though Dorfler is always on the receiving end of many jokes, he gets his chances to prevail. However, you know that, ultimately, he is destined to fail. Dorfler has a distinctive personality instead of being merely a cardboard cutout.

Joe Pantoliano is so good as the increasingly exasperated bail bondsman. His opening exchange with De Niro early on in the film is so well played. In a matter of moments De Niro and Pantoliano suggest a long history between their two characters in the way they act towards each other. Eddie is a consummate bullshit artist but Walsh sees right through that. I like the nice little detail that Brest throws into this scene where Eddie pays Walsh by taking out a wad of cash stashed in his pink and white socks. It is details like this that say so much about a character. Eddie cares only about money and his reputation. These characters could have been presented as clichéd stereotypes but Brest wisely casts veteran character actors like Ashton and Pantoliano in these roles.

Many of the supporting characters appear constantly throughout the film in a series of recurring gags, like Mosely running into people who’ve encountered Walsh posing as him, or Mardukas’ never-ending questions about Walsh’s personal life (“Why were you so unpopular with the Chicago Police Department?”), or Dorfler getting fooled by the same trick time and time again. Then there’s Joey (Robert Miranda) and Tony (Richard Foronjy), two dumb Vegas wiseguys that work for Serrano. Tony’s the slightly smarter one but not by much. The give and take between these two minor characters is really funny and the script gives them a moment of actual competency which makes them more than just one-dimensional thugs. It helps that the two actors playing them do such a good job bringing these characters to life.

Much like Yaphet Kotto does with Agent Mosely, Dennis Farina plays his character as if he were in a drama and not a comedy. Unlike his goofier mobsters in Get Shorty (1995) and Snatch (2000), the actor transforms Jimmy Serrano into an imposing figure best illustrated in the scene where he confronts Mardukas and tells him that he’s going to die. For a brief moment, Midnight Run stops being a comedy and there’s a real sense of danger thanks to Farina’s chilling presence in this scene. He’s also quite funny in the scenes where he threatens his underlings with all sorts over-the-top violent acts if they don’t do his bidding.

Nowadays, it’s hard to remember when De Niro doing a comedy was something of an anomaly. Sure, he had done The King of Comedy (1983) but by and large he was known at the time as a dramatic actor. So, teaming him up with veteran comedic actor Charles Grodin in an action comedy must’ve seemed like a risky prospect to the studio. But this would be tempered with director Brest behind the camera. This was years before Gigli (2003) when he was still enjoying the good will from the smash hit Beverly Hills Cop. If anybody could make De Niro funny while still retaining his trademark intensity, it was Brest.

Now, there is a whole generation of filmgoers that only knows De Niro from comedies like Meet the Parents (2000) and Analyze That (2002). Charles Grodin has, for the most part, shunned the limelight. He had a short-lived talk show but has, unfortunately, not done anything on par with his work in Midnight Run. In fact, he hasn’t acted much since 1994 and said in a recent interview that he has quit acting altogether. By the late 1980s, early 1990s, the buddy-action film had become a tired and hackneyed cliché. Screenwriter Shane Black offered a brief breath of fresh air with Lethal Weapon (1987) and The Last Boy Scout (1991) but generic time-wasters, like De Niro’s own Showtime (2002), Serving Sara (2002), which blatantly rips off Midnight Run, or the more recent The Bounty Hunter (2010), are still cranked out with predictable regularity by the studios. Back in 1988, Brest delivered the goods in a big way, serving up an R-rated film that mixed exciting car chases and shoot-outs with hilarious recurring gags and assortment of colorful characters.

Episode 28: Michael Mann’s THIEF with Special Guest FRANCINE SANDERS

FRANCINE POWERCAST

We covered Michael Mann’s 1981 neo noir Chicago crime film, THIEF, that starred James Caan, Tuesday Weld, James Belushi, Dennis Farina, and Willie Nelson.  We’re joined with Frank’s former film professor, Francine Sanders, who teaches classes at Columbia College of Chicago.  Frank took her Studies of the Films of the 1970’s.  Francine teaches film courses at Oakton Community College’s Emeritus Program, and has served on the faculty of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy and Roosevelt University.  Not only is she a published and awarded writer, but she worked for the Chicago Police Department for eight and half years as a civilian investigator for the Office of Professional Standards and helped uncover police torture and corruption under Chicago Police Department’s former Cmdr. Jon Burge.  Francine is a key component for Frank’s love of film, and there wouldn’t be a Podcasting Them Softy (at least from Frank’s end) without her!

Michael Mann’s Thief: A Review by Nate Hill

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With Thief, Michael Mann distilled his crime film style into an archetypal, haunting aura that would go on to influence not only his excellent later work, but other filmmakers as well, everything from Refn’s Drive to the police procedural we see on television today. A style that consists of kaleidoscope neon reflections in rain slicked streets, Chrome cars bulleting through restless urban nocturnes and a lyrical, pulsating score, here provided by underrated German electronic maestros Tangerine Dream, who would go on to provide their dulcet tones for Mann’s phenomenal 1983 The Keep. Thief weaves the age old tale of a master safe cracker(James Caan in a beautifully understated performance) the high stakes at risk of him performing one last job to escape, with said stakes represented as his angelic wife (Tuesday Weld) and newborn son. Robert Prosky in his film debut is a serpentine wonder as Leo, Caan’s boss, whose chilling metamorphosis from paternal employer to domineering monster is a joy to watch. The jewel heist scenes are shot with a researched, assured and authentic feel, spurred on by Tangerine Dreams cosmic rhythms and are especially dynamic points of the film. Thief, for me, belongs that special subcategory of Mann’s career along with Heat, Miami Vice and Collateral, (Public Enemies doesn’t get to come in this elite cinematic treehouse club, it didn’t do anything for me) that are very special crime films. They possess an intangible, ethereal quality of colour, metal, music, and shady people moving about a thrumming urban dreamscape, professionals at what they do, cogs in the ticking clock of crime that inexorably drives toward the narrative outcome, be it bitter confrontation and violence (of which Thief has an absolute gorgeous, poetic revenge sequence) or cathartic resolution (like the conventionally satisfying way Collateral ends). Mann has captured neon lightning in a bottle with Thief, and against the odds of people saying you can’t catch lightning twice, he has spark plugged a good portion of his career with that same lightning, creating an artistic aesthetic all his own. To me that is the ultimate outcome of filmmaking, and art as a medium.