Tag Archives: Elmore Leonard

Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten Dennis Farina Performances

Who knew that a Chicago ex-cop would go on to become one of the most recognizable and talented presences in Hollywood? Michael Mann did when he cast buddy Dennis Farina in Thief way back in the day, after which the actor went on to give us an absolutely captivating, scene stealing body of work in cinema and a career particularly in crime and comedy genres that is now legend. He could be funny as all hell and then turn downright dangerous at the drop of a hat, your affable best friend or grim worst enemy in any given scene and often simultaneously. Dennis is no longer with us but his epic career lives on every day, and here are my personal top ten characters he crafted!

10. Maurice Cantavale in Randall Miller’s Bottle Shock

If you haven’t seen this lovely little film then get on that right away, because it’s an absolute charmer through and through. So basically Alan Rickman is a British wine connoisseur who travels across the pond to Napa valley for a competition to enter his wines. Farina is his neighbour, a travel guide entrepreneur who accompanies him for camaraderie, companionship and moral support. He’s a lovable teddy bear here who has adorable chemistry with Rickman and adds to an already terrific ensemble cast.

9. Henry DeSalvo in Barry Sonnenfield’s Big Trouble

In an ensemble cast that’s just about as packed as one 90 minute comedy can handle, he stands out as a super cranky hitman called into Miami to kill a asshole corrupt business exec (Stanley Tucci). He finds every obstacle possible thrown in his path though from rambunctious football fans (“we got gator fans!”) to overzealous security guards and everything else the city has to offer. His mounting exasperation and deadpan frustration is one of the highlights of this hilarious, underrated screwball comedy.

8. Lt. Mike Torello in Michael Mann’s Crime Story

Here he gets to channel his real life roots in playing a tough Chicago police detective trying to prevent an up and coming wiseguy (Ray Luca) from ascending to power in the city’s dangerous criminal underworld. A companion piece of sorts to Mann’s more popular Miami Vice, this is a fantastically produced crime epic that’s packed with guest stars, many of which went on to A-list fame. Dennis is grounded, angry, violent when he needs to be but imbues the character with compassionate hues as well, it’s a beautiful lead role in a career that’s mostly stocked with supporting turns.

7. Joe May in Joe Maggio’s The Last Rites Of Joe May

Another lead role yay! This is a fantastic little seen indie drama about ex Chicago hustler Joe May who is released from prison in his twilight years and discovers the streets, along with his capabilities, aren’t what they used to be. Farina sadly passed away a few years after this was released and as such it kind of stands as a swan song of sorts. It’s about age, the passage of time and ultimately redemption in the face of one’s own mortality, and he nails every aspect of theme/character flawlessly, and should have been nominated for all the awards.

6. Dick Muller in Jon Bokenkamp’s Preston Tylk aka Bad Seed

This little seen indie drama sees widower Luke Wilson in a disquieting game of cat and mouse with his deceased wife’s lover (Norman Reedus), both blaming each other for her untimely death. Dennis is the world weary private investigator Wilson hires to help him through the whole mess and it’s in their dynamic that a touching interaction is formed. This is a depressing, sad story that can only end messily overall but he finds the humour, pathos and uplifting notes to his performance and it’s one of my favourite of the lesser known ones.

5. Jimmy Serrano in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run

This guy is a piece of work, but a hilarious one. The grumpiest Chicago mobster you could ever find, he’s a violent, corrupt, short tempered prick who spends most of his scenes threatening his poor lawyer (Phillip Baker Hall) with extreme bodily harm and trying to track down Robert De Niro’s elusive bounty hunter with whom he has a decades old grudge with. It’s a flashy, really funny and engaging bad guy turn that manages to scare and I still laughs in equal measures.

4. Gus Demitriou in HBO’s Luck

This was a sadly short lived but magnificent series set in and around an LA horse racetrack and focusing on all sorts of individuals whose lives revolve around it. Dustin Hoffman is Chester, a parolee who walks a fine line between businessman and mobster, while Farina’s Gus is his driver, assistant, sounding board, business partner and overall good friend. The dynamic between these two is communicated brilliantly by the two actors and we get a real sense of Gus’s moral standpoint, goals and outlook on life.

3. Jack Crawford in Michael Mann’s Manhunter

A few guys have played the FBI’s head of behavioural science and while Scott Glenn’s turn will always be my favourite, Dennis made a fascinating version. In a career filled with intense and exuberant work he made his Crawford into an understated guy who works well with William Petersen’s equally inward Will Graham.

2. Ray ‘Bones’ Barboni in Barry Sonnenfield’s Get Shorty

One pissed off Miami gangster who is none too happy to get called to LA on business, he gets the film’s best line when he begrudgingly proclaims to a taxi driver: “They say the fucking smog is the fucking reason you have such beautiful fucking sunsets.” Dennis was a staple in film adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s work and this is one of the pithiest, funniest in both his and the author’s rogues gallery.

1. Cousin Avi in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch

In an ensemble cast full of eclectic underground whackadoos, he *really* steals the show as a supremely sassy NYC gangster reluctantly dragged to London (which he hates) to track down a stolen diamond. Dennis’s energetic Chicago twang and Ritchie’s stylized flair for dialogue make this character sing, he gets many of the film’s funniest bits and is clearly having a ton of fun.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!

-Nate Hill

In Memory of Robert Forster: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Robert Forster passed away yesterday and the realms of Hollywood, television, exploitation and indie features will never be the same. This was a guy you knew even if you didn’t know his name, a pillar of supporting performances for decades, a man who radiated talent and charisma even if he was only onscreen for three minutes of any given production. My buddy saw him in an airport once but couldn’t think of his name for months and it drove us both nuts for awhile. He described the fellow as a “world weary detective type with kind eyes and a vaguely sad demeanour.” We eventually figured out who he meant when I kept showing him a rogues gallery of IMDb profile pictures to try and solve the conundrum, but my point is that this was a guy whose essence and persona just sticks with you no matter the role or project. I will miss him dearly and revisit many of his excellent performances again but for now here are my top ten favourite:

10. Steve Yendel in the Nelms Brothers’ Small Town Crime

The ultimate pissed off dad, Steve takes quirky revenge on the assholes who killed his daughter in this violent but good natured black comedy, teaming up with a persnickety pimp (Clifton Collins jr) for some off the books war games. “I wanna tie them to the back of my Bentley, drag them around a bit.” His delivery of that pithy little sentiment is both droll and priceless.

9. Marshall Sisco in ABC’s Karen Sisco

Not the first Elmore Leonard adaptation on this list sees him playing father, mentor and friend to Carla Gugino’s badass federal Marshall Karen Sisco in this televised version. Dennis Farina and Jennifer Lopez played these roles in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight and rocked it but Robert and Carla find their own laidback, easygoing groove and have terrific chemistry. Word of warning though this show was never released onto DVD and is absent from any streaming services anywhere (which someone should really do something about) so basically your only hope is chopped up versions on YouTube.

8. Burt in Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had

Forster frequently finds himself in gritty genre stuff so I always get in line when he does something gentler like this hilarious and heartbreaking family drama. He’s brilliant here as a patriarch whose wife (Blythe Danner) is slipping into dementia. He’s nonchalant about it while his kids (Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon) unravel. His refusal to admit that she’s slowly losing herself is sort of sad and funny at the same time and the performance is perfectly pitched between the two.

7. Detective Murphy in Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin

His character here is only onscreen for a minute or two but he’s got the biggest monologue in a film already thick with dense dialogue, and the dump truck level of exposition he delivers is something to see as he nails it while giving his idiosyncratic NYC cop role attitude to spare even though none of the dialogue is even about him. If you’ve seen the film you know what a brilliant, labyrinthine house of twists it is and he gets to impart the final wisdom that brings the narrative home, subsequently leaving a lasting impression amidst many other quirky performances.

6. Detective Harry McKnight in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr

Another quick cameo but one of the finest moments of eerie gravitas in the film. As a horrific limo crash kicks off the films inciting incident, Harry and his partner (Brent Briscoe, another Lynch favourite who is no longer with us) stand by the roadside and look out over the nocturnal LA dreamscape, wondering just what happened. The quiet, contemplative look in his eyes suggests many mysteries to come without saying anything, and his scene remains one of the films most atmospheric and memorable.

5. Arthur Petrelli in NBC’s Heroes

He always rocked the kinder roles but did some wicked nasty villain turns too, here playing the utterly evil and sociopathic ringleader of the troubled Petrelli clan. Not above terrorizing and murdering his own family for incredibly nefarious gains, he heads up the mysterious corporation that is pretty much responsible for most of the shitty things that happen on the show. Underplaying for chilling effect, he was essentially the big bad of the entire series run and wielded it wonderfully.

4. Scott Thorson in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants

Another aging family man looking after an ill wife, he plays father in law to George Clooney’s grieving real estate tycoon in a wonderfully emotional and intimate interpersonal drama. He doesn’t approve of his son in law and makes it very clear in a series of wry commentaries that lead to a confrontation that the actor gives the power of an open wound.

3. Sheriff Frank Truman in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return

Taking over the character in spirit from Michael Ontkean but also playing a new rendition of the upright lawman archetype, Robert plays Frank as a straight arrow who has begun to dim and get a bit weary. He’s a thoughtful man, a tired husband and you can sense a spiritual crisis in him when things begin to get weird because this is Twin Peaks and they inevitably must. One of my favourite scenes in the entire Peaks saga is a pine rimmed computer popping out of his desk so he can skype Doc Hayward (Warren Frost) on his fishing trip about vital information and share pleasantries while he’s at it. It’s such a lovely scene full of light and goodness, Robert’s contribution to the Peaks world is really something special.

2. Jake Nyman in Paul Chort’s American Perkekt

This is a weird one but essential because the director wrote this role specifically for Forster and he’s absolutely fucking terrifying in it. Jake is a psychiatrist, or says he is anyways, but he’s on a demented road trip where every decision is determined by the flip of a coin, and with each flip he seems to lose his grip on sanity a bit more. The final act sees him completely go over the edge and terrorize a drifter (Fairuza Balk) into submission. It’s a very strange film with many characters and has that oddball ‘psycho indie road flick’ vibe but his performance is the sickened heart of it and he really lets that ripcord of uninhibited mania go.

1. Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown

The crown jewel of his career saw Tarantino revive his Hollywood career to play bail bondsman Max, a keen Everyman who is deeply in love with Jackie (Pam Grier) from the moment he lays eyes on her and determined to help her escape homicidal gun runner Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). The pacing of both the film and particularly his performance really sells this story, you can watch the wheels turning as he observes characters around him interact, and the blossoming look of adoration on his face when he sees Jackie for the first time is truly remarkable.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your favourites from Robert’s fantastic career!

-Nate Hill

Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN

Following the cinema changing smash of PULP FICTION, marking the first and last time (so far) in his career, Quentin Tarantino adapted a property by someone else By adapting Elmore Leonard, Tarantino made the story and his characters his own, by using a set story and characters, he populates each character with his hallmark casting and colors in Leonard’s dialogue with his own Tarantinoisms. JACKIE BROWN has long been hailed Tarantino’s most “mature” work, and in a sense, that is a more than a fair assessment.

Tarantino’s cast is rather remarkable in this picture. He changes the name and skin color of Leonard’s heroine by casting Pam Grier in her finest role that acts as both a callback continuation of some of her most seminal 70s characters and an empowering role of fierce feminism. Robert Forster, another mainstay of forgotten roles in cinema gets cast in one of Tarantino’s best characters, Max Cherry, the stoic bail bondsman who assists in Grier’s caper.

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Michael Keaton and Robert De Niro are magnificent in meaty roles that act as respective undercards in their rich canon of characters; it truly is a shame that Tarantino never worked with Keaton and De Niro again, because he gets unique performances out of them, that is tremendously underrated. And of course, Samuel L. Jackson gets a very Sam Jackson role, and he is such a magnificent son of a bitch to watch in the film. Bridget Fonda has never been better or sexier.

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Tarantino crafts a film populated with older actors, giving us a pulpy crime caper, where the action is moved forward by dialogueless characters, Forster and De Niro’s total dialogue probably would take up three pages in the screenplay, through their reactions, stares, and movements very much move the film along. The cunning screenplay foregoes Tarantino’s violent nature, through the guise of character progression.

Tarantino’s love for the dangerous and sexy heroine is on full display in this film. Pam Grier’s take on the role that she’ll more than likely be remembered for is phenomenal, and she shifts back and forth between manipulating the bad men in the film and falling for her sidekick, Forster.

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The reason this film is deemed Tarantino’s most mature is that the film laminates stoicism through Grier and Forster. The film is about living with mistakes, living long enough to know your limitations, and how to survive. All these characters have lived a life of struggle and hardship well before the cameras start rolling. The film builds up and cascades into an emotional moment between two genre actors that get dropped into a mainstream, highly polished film and that is such a beautiful thing.

Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown

Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown runs right around two and a half hours, and if you were to go through the film and separate all the scenes that are directly about the central plot specifics from the ones that are simply characters hanging out, shooting the shit and socializing, you’d probably cut the film in half. There’s a lesson I was taught in film school and it goes something like “every scene in the script must serve/move the plot and anything that doesn’t must go.” Well, I get the creative sentiment there but it’s often much more complicated than that, and often very subjective what one person will distill personally from a scene and use for their appreciation of the story overall versus another person being bored by it. In the case of Jackie Brown, I absolutely loved each and every laidback scene of breezy character development. These people start talking about movies, weed, cars, guns, the city or anything offhand and slowly, gradually they shift into what the story is about, which is the genius of Tarantino’s screenplay, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch.

As the titular Jackie Brown, Pam Grier gives the performance of her career as a desperate middle aged career woman trying to score a little extra loot for herself, and getting trapped between a rock and a hard place in the process. She smuggles cash in from Mexico for low rent arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a fast talking psychopath who enlists his newly released ex con pal Louis (Robert De Niro) into helping him out with the latest gig. Also involved is Ordell’s beach bunny stoner girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda), a low level thug on his payroll (Chris Tucker) and stoic, sad eyed bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). All these players shuffle around the LA chessboard, often lazily and in no rush and it’s these scenes that give the film its lifeblood. Jackie and Max find compassion, solace and bittersweet romance together, Tarantino let’s them circle each other in no great hurry and later in the film when they do share a kiss it’s just the most beautiful, well built up moment. Grier comes from a blaxploitation background and it’s apparent in her performance, but we also get the sense that this operates on a real plane, much more so than many other Tarantino films. Forster is always noble, observant and calm in most of his career, there’s a few obscure manic performances from him out there but for the most part he underplays his work. Max has to be his best creation, a steely journeyman dude who’s seen enough and wants something new in his life, something he finds in Jackie as he falls in love with her literally at first sight.

This is a character piece, and in addition to Grier and Forster we get incredibly vivid, funny and idiosyncratic work from all involved. Jackson is hysterical as the most verbose cat of the bunch, he’s also scarier than Jules in Pulp Fiction too. DeNiro plays Louis as a dim-headed fuck-up who seems to be playing dumb to stealth people, then seems to actually be thick again until we’re just not sure right up until the hilarious last few beats of his arc that result in some of the funniest black comedy I’ve ever seen. Fonda let’s a stoned veneer hide a deep resentment and hatred for pretty much everyone around her until she takes it one step too far and pays for it hilariously. Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen show up doing a flawless good cop bad cop routine as a local Detective and an ATF agent on both Jackie’s and Ordell’s trail. Watch for Lisa Gay Hamilton, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister and genre veteran Sid Haig as well.

I get conflicted when ranking this amongst other Tarantino films because he’s adapting someone else’s work and therefore it’s not purely his creation, which is always when his most energetic and inspired stuff happens. Jackie Brown is a masterpiece and one of my favourite films, no doubt. But it’s Tarantino doing something else, chilling out in the pool and letting this cast of characters hang out too, in bars, beach apartments, cars, cluttered offices, malls and airports. There’s no great momentum or surge behind this story, it’s all very laconic and easy breezy, which is the strongest quality. But it just as much feels like a Leonard story as it does Tarantino, which works too. His crazy, wild style and pop culture obsessions are given a modest track to race around because of Leonard’s low key, slow burn dialogue aesthetic and the resulting flavour is so good it’s almost perfect. But it’s not just Quentin at the helm. Whatever your thoughts on that and comparisons with this film next to the ones he’s both written and directed, there’s no arguing that this is a beautiful, hilarious, touching, suspenseful, romantic classic of the crime genre.

-Nate Hill

Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty

Barry Sonnenfield’s Get Shorty could also laterally be called Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, since star John Travolta fought tooth and nail to keep all of the author’s dense, intelligent and pop culture soaked dialogue intact. The film is not only better for it but comes out a glowing gem, a giddy crime/comedy classic that’s as special to me as a comfort blanket to a toddler. A rainy day film, a lazy Sunday go-to DVD, I could watch the thing anytime and not only be consistently entertained with each revisit, but notice something I didn’t the previous couple hundred times. Travolta has never been cooler as Chili Palmer, a silver tongued Miami mobster who is propelled on a meta odyssey to Los Angeles after his boss dies and a whirlwind of confusion is whipped up. There he gets a taste for the film industry after meeting sad-sack B movie mogul Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman, priceless), scream queen actress Karen Flores (Rene Russo, never sexier) and a host of others. It’s a Hollywood satire, a pulpy crime thriller, a brilliant dark comedy and ensemble screwball piece that comes as close to the shores of perfection as movies can get. Dennis Farina gives one of his timelessly precious, angry wiseguy turns as Ray ‘Bones’ Barboni, another Miami hood and the barbaric, obnoxious answer to Travolta’s cool cucumber gentleman act. Delroy Lindo has further villain duties as crime kingpin Bo Catlett, who also has his sights set on celluloid and will intimidate, kill and extort his way there at any cost. Danny DeVito does a sly, biting send up of method acting as Martin Weir, a lovable thespian with his head just a wee bit jammed up his own ass. James Gandolfini is pure class as Bear, the stuntman who moonlights as an enforcer and carries his adorable daughter around anywhere he goes. Rounding out the cast are perfectly pitched turns from Jon Gries, David Paymer, Bette Midler, Martin Ferrero, Miguel Sandoval, Jack Conley and a special surprise cameo that I won’t spoil. Although not my favourite Leonard adaptation (Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight holds those honours), it’s definitely the most fun, and by far the most entertaining. The cleverness of offhand Hollywood jargon, peppered with obscure references that expect the cinephile in you to keep up are pure bliss, not to mention the tongue in cheek tough guy banter, the playful music by John Lurie, the lighthearted, whip crack editing from Jom Miller/Ted Woerner and the showcase performances from all actors involved, feasting on Elmore’s fine dialogue like steak & lobster. There’s a sequel called Be Cool which I have been reluctant to see, so I can’t weight in on it but apparently it doesn’t measure up, so you could always divert and check out Sonnenfield’s 2001 comedy Big Trouble, which is fun too and shares some costars with this (Farina and Russo appear in both). Or you can just pop this masterpiece in for another visit, and let it be it’s own sequel. I do all the time.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight


No one does the breezy, goodnatured crime drama like Steven Soderbergh, and after rewatching his 1998 romantic caper Out Of Sight, I’ve realized it’s my favourite of his films by a mile. The easygoing love story between George Clooney’s hapless career criminal Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez’s feisty federal Marshall Karen Sisco is a pairing for the ages, and the two not only smoulder up the screen with their obvious presence, but have effortless chemistry in spades and know how to sell the romance until you feel that tug on the ol’ heartstrings when the stakes are raised. It doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Elliott Davis beautifully frames each encounter with them, the best being a gorgeous airport dinner where the two croon out Elmore Leonard’s savoury, measured dialogue against a snow laden Tarmac outside, the perfect romantic ambience. Foley is a trouble magnet, embroiled in scheme after scheme with his older, wiser partner Buddy (Ving Rhames). After their dipshit pal Glen (a stoned Steve Zahn) gets them mixed up in a plot to rob a pompous Wall Street millionaire (Albert Brooks) via some truly nasty jailbird thugs from their collective past (Don Cheadle provides the film’s only true dose of menace amongst the charm), all hell breaks loose and against odds, Jack and Karen find themselves falling in love. Elmore Leonard’s scripts always seem to find their way to great directors (Barry Sonnenfield made magic with Get Shorty), richly varied casts (Jackie Brown is an ensemble for the time capsule) and end up as films that are simply timeless. Dennis Farina mellows out as Karen’s concerned ex-cop father, Luis Guzman does his grimy cholo rat shtick, and watch for Catherine Keener, Nancy Allen, Isiaah Washington, Paul Calderon, Viola Davis, an uncredited Michael Keaton playing none other than his Jackie Brown character (an Elmore Leonard cinematic universe!) and a surprise cameo right at the end that I won’t spoil except to say it sets up any potential sequels nicely. The whole deal rests on Lopez and Clooney’s shoulders though, and they’re nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s a rag tale romance, classy but down to earth, two beautiful souls from very opposite sides of the tracks who generate sparks and circle each other like cosmic magnets. Stuck together in the trunk of a speeding car, they discuss life, love and films, reminding us that no romance is alike to another and the best way to start off something like that is perhaps on the wrong foot and in the least imagined circumstances possible. Like any love story it knows that a pinch of sadness is necessary to balance the bittersweet recipe and tweak our emotions just right. A career best for George, Jennifer and Steven and a film worthy of classic status. 

-Nate Hill

Elmore Leonard’s Killshot: A Review by Nate Hill 

John Madden’s Killshot went through the ninth ring of production hell before it was finally released in 07 or so, after like three years of gathering dust on the shelf. The resulting film didn’t win anyone over who waited all that time with baited breath, because you can see the cuts, chops and gaps in story where it’s been muddled around with, no doubt by the fuckwit studio. I still love it, flaws and all. Based on an Elmore Leonard tale (you can never go wrong with his work, it’s a sombre tale of psychopaths, assassins and one hapless estranged couple (Thomas Jane & Diane Lane) caught in between. When legendary native american hitman Arman ‘The Blackbird’ Degas (Mickey Rourke) botches a job for the Toronto mafia, he’s forced on the run, and hides out with aimless young lunatic

criminal Ritchie Nix (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who somewhat reminds him of a litte brother he lost years before. Rourke pulls off the native angle quite well, and shows vague glimpses of a humanity that was once there and has long since been buried in violence. When Jane and Lane accidentally witness him murder someone, he won’t let it go, pursuing them beyond rationality or reason, even to his own end. Levitt never gets to play the wild card, and he rocks his redneck sociopath brat role with scary aplomb. Rosario Dawson has an odd appearance as Ritchie’s girlfriend, an elvis fan who is seemingly a little bit challenged upstairs. Watch for a cameo from Hal Holbrook as a crusty old mobster too. You’ll just have to imagine the federal agent character played by Johnny Knoxville though, because he never made it into the film and can now only be seen in ages old trailers that were a false start. Despite it’s issues, I find it to be an atmospheric little pulp outing that does have the classic Leonard feel, a hard bitten, cold-hearted turn from Rourke that’s one of his best characters in recent years, and a mean, unforgiving narrative set in picturesque northern Canada. Give it a shot, it deserves way more love than its received so far.