"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

WANTED!!! -- For stealing these movies...

There are cases where a movie is absolutely loaded with top-notch talent, working at or near their peak, and a lower-level character actor or relative newcomer comes in and makes it his own.

I'm going to give you three examples; ALL of which are worth seeking out and renting.

First up, in our rogues gallery of thieves...
    Wilford Brimley as James J. Wells - Photo from MovieActors.com

Paul Newman, Sally Field, Bob Balaban, Melinda Dillon, Wilford Brimley.

A local prosecutor (played as a real weasel by Bob Balaban) is getting nowhere in his investigation of the disappearance of a union leader. He decides to put pressure on Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), the son of a long-dead bootlegger and gang boss from Prohibition days.

Michael is straight, and has had nothing at all to do with his father's activities, but the prosecutor reasons that "He either knows something, or he can find out. We're going to make him want to find out."

To accomplish this, he leaks a false story, about an investigation of Michael, to reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) to cast a shadow over him and compel him to cooperate.

As a result, some very private information about a close friend of Michael's is made public, with tragic results.

Michael learns of this prosecutor and decides to exact some justice by turning the wolves on each other, resulting in a major scandal that becomes front-page news.

This can be considered the flip side of All the President's Men (1975), and was written by former Detroit Free Press reporter Kurt Luedtke, about the unbridled power of the press to be able to destroy anyone with near impunity.

There's a wonderful scene in there, after the blow-up, when Megan's editor is doing damage control, telling her "Davidek filled me in.  We're not gonna retract anything, but we've got a lot of explaining to do.  Sarah's going to write the story, and we'll handle it the best way we can."

Sarah is a reporter that Megan has been mentoring, and when Megan looks around to her, Sarah raises her head and looks at her, and for a brief second you get the feeling that a shark has just noticed that you and it are in the same body of water.

All of the people in this movie are first-rate, but then Brimley shows up in the last twenty minutes of the movie and completely steals it.

"Well now. Let the record show that I'm James J. Wells, Assistant Attorney General for the Organized Crime Division of the United States Department of Justice."
This is the damnedest story you ever read.
Tell you what we're gonna do.  We're gonna sit right here and talk about it.

Now, if you get tired of talkin' here, Mr. Marshall Elving Patrick there will hand you one of them subpoenas he's got stuck in his pockets and we'll go downstairs and talk in front of the grand jury.

We'll talk all day, if you want.

But come sundown, there's gonna be two things true that ain't true now.

One is that the United States Department of Justice will know what in the good Christ -- excuse me, Angie -- is going on around here.

And the other is I'm gonna have somebody's ass in my briefcase."

He's one of those guys who easily manages to be believable as whatever he's playing.  On his role in John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), both Carpenter and Kurt Russell remark (in the DVD commentary) that he's "just the real deal; nothing phony about him at all". "He sure ain't selling oatmeal there!", one of them laughs when Brimley goes on a tear in that movie (In reference to the commercials he's been known for lately.)

Next up, we have...
Dennis Farina as Ray Bones - Photo from Aveley.com

   Get Shorty (1995)
John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina

Miami loan shark "Chili" Palmer (John Travolta) goes to Hollywood to collect a gambling debt from a runner who has collected a large amount of money in an insurance scam. From a person who helped point the way to the runner, he also takes on collecting another debt from Hollywood producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman).

Being a movie-lover himself, Chili decides to use the money he will collect from the runner to invest in one of Harry's films, IF he can get yet another set of loan sharks off of Harry's back.  He offers to do so, being something of an expert in that field.

To make Harry's project feasible, he needs to get movie star Martin Weir (Danny DeVito) on board.

ALL of this is dependent on getting hold of the runner's money; making a career change possible from loan shark to movie producer (if that is a change).

Complicating things is the fact that Chili now has a new boss, Ray "Bones" Barboni (Dennis Farina), who is very old-school about collecting gambling debts and is just not the connoisseur of films that Chili is.  All he wants is his money, and he's totally ruthless about getting it.

Here you have a cast of veteran talent doing their best work in ages, and ex-Chicago-cop turned actor Farina is mixing it up with them and totally holding his own.

He can be funny as Hell, and then scary as Hell, within a heartbeat, telling a surviving witness of a shootout (surviving only because he would be getting money that Ray wanted)...
"I was not here.
 I was never here.
 And if you say otherwise, I'll come back and throw you right through that window."

The thing about Farina is that he is so believable when he says something like that. I don't recall ever seeing him in a movie where I didn't totally believe the character he was playing; he has this authenticity about him.

He got started when director Michael Mann made his first feature movie, Thief (1981), using "retired" jewel thief John Santucci as a technical advisor.  For some of the police procedures, Santucci suggested to Mann that he bring on board Farina (who may have helped to "retire" him).

Farina wound up with a small part in the movie, as a gunman working for the chief bad guy, and apparently decided that this work beat Hell out of freezing his ass off in stakeouts, nourishing himself with cold pizza slices and lukewarm coffee.

Most people know of Hannibal Lector from Anthony Hopkins' portrayal in Silence of the Lambs, but he actually appeared five years earlier (played by Brian Cox) in Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986), the first film version of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon.

In it, Farina plays the character of Jack Crawford (played by Scott Glenn in Silence) and has a very nice moment when his underling has requested that an FBI fingerprint specialist check the bodies of a family that had been slaughtered, over the protests of the local examiner ("We've already checked and there's nothing!"). When he (in the presence of that examiner) gets a call from the specialist, telling him of recovering a partial thumbprint from the eye of one of the victims, he looks at the examiner for a second with a very quiet smile that almost seems to be saying, "This is what the grown-ups can do."

Finding Farina to be a natural actor, Mann cast him as Lt. Mike Torello in Crime Story , running for two seasons (1986-1988).  Since then, he's been in countless movies (never boring) and has yet another TV series in the works.  Stay tuned.

And, finally (at least for this post)...
Karl Urban, as William Cooper - Photo from Newsarama.com

RED (2010)
Bruce Willis,     Mary Louise-Parker,     Morgan Freeman,     John Malkovich,
Hellen Mirren, Brian Cox, Ernest Borgnine (YES! You read that correctly. That
man is ninety years old now, and doing just fine), Richard Dreyfuss, Karl Urban

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a retired CIA "black ops" operative (flagged RED -- Retired;  Extremely Dangerous) making his lonely way through the tedium of life on the shelf.

He's engaged in what amounts to a telephone romance with Sarah Ross (Mary Louise-Parker), a lady at the department responsible for his pension checks, using any excuse he can find just to be able to talk to her.

One night, his home is invaded by a team of professional assassins intent on taking him out.

After dealing with that, he realizes that he must have been under surveillance, his phone monitored, and that his calls to Sarah have probably put her in danger as well. He handles that problem in typical Frank Moses fashion; kidnapping her to get her out of the line-of-fire while he sorts out who is after him and why.

Figuring that he could use a little help with this, he calls on old colleagues Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) -- now in a retirement home, and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich; as crazy as ever, but this time his character is paranoid for very good reasons.)

They also enlist the help of Russian spy and former adversary Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox - "I haven't killed anybody in years!", he sighs sadly) and that of retired British SIS operative and sharpshooter Victoria (Helen Mirren - You have got to see that lady work a .50 caliber machine gun).

With the help of Marvin's files, they determine that Frank had been involved in the cleanup after a massacre in South America, brought on by a panicked young officer that was the son of a powerful Senator. Years later, that officer is running for a very high political office, and anyone knowing of his past has been marked for elimination.

That politician has a powerful friend, Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss), who had helped to spirit him away from the massacre. Dunning has the resources to hire the hit teams, and to manipulate a corrupt CIA officer, who tasks operative William Cooper (Karl Urban) with the job of eliminating Frank.

Cooper has been told that Frank is a traitor and a threat, but Cooper (sort of a modern day version of Frank) has this disturbing habit of thinking for himself, and is getting very leery about the particulars of this operation.

Unlike the previous two, Karl Urban is already becoming a major star. He's a (relative) newcomer compared to the rest of the cast, but just look at that cast.

Not one of them has to apologize for his/her work here, but whenever this Kiwi shows up you cannot take your eyes off of him. He's one of the most amazing imports from New Zealand since Russell Crowe.

Although he's been around longer than that, I think most of us first noticed him as Eomer, in the 2nd and 3rd installments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was the assassin Kirill in The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and in Star Trek (2009) he played Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy as if he were channeling the late DeForest Kelly (who was the original McCoy).

In The Return of Mickey Rourke, I took a shot at defining what presence is in a movie actor. Urban is a terrific example; it's what makes him dominate whatever scenes he's in.  I doubt that he needs any selling by me;  he has the ability to do anything that Harrison Ford has ever done, and the potential of becoming an even bigger star.

Well, so much for past and recent history.

Is there anything at all worth a damn currently (Wed, 27 Apr 2001 2011) showing?

I highly recommend The Lincoln Lawyer (2011 - So named for the Lincoln Town Car within which he sometimes does business). In it, Matthew McConaughey has decided to try acting again (instead of merely showing up as he has done in all too many of his later films), giving us the guy who was so damned good in Lone Star (1996) and Frailty (2001).

It's still on a few screens now. and might (or might not) be there the coming week.

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