Michael Madsen

Reservoir Dogs

Year: 1992
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Written By: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary

RYAN’S REVIEW

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten back on this trail along the journey through our DVD rack. Well, what better movie to come back to than this one? That just happened to be next in line. This is after all the original and hard hitting film that put Quentin Tarantino on the map. By the time I saw it for the first time it was already a cult classic. That was back in 2001 or so when I was just a kid discovering who Tarantino was and backtracking his career.

It was an exciting thing to discover this movie as a teenager. Those were back in the days when I worked at a video store days and had youthful dreams of following in the footsteps of Tarantino. A guy who just loved movies and started making his own. Long before Kill Bill, I had a very different point of view regarding the the young director. I thought his movies were incredible and I really admired how he had made something of himself. He had written some stories, sacrificed some to finance his first film, and with some help from his friends got the ball rolling on an interesting career. A career that has offered us some truly exceptional films, and it all started with this one.

It was a wonderful thing to discover this movie during my formative years. As a young man I had a wild appetite for stories that I fed with both books and film. I had a wild imagination to boot and spent the boring hours of school days imagining stories of my own that I would write down from time to time. When I got my first job at the age of 15 working at a movie video store (that nearly forgotten business entity) I went home every evening with something new to explore. I had been aware of Quentin Tarantino’s work when I was younger. Not just from Jackie Brownwhich I had the opportunity to see in the theater but before that. I remember 1994 and seeing the Pulp Fiction poster of Uma Thurman laying on the bed. I was taken with the poster but warned by my step mother that this movie was nothing but garbage. I specifically remember it being one of the first films I took home because I finally had the opportunity to see it for myself. I was marveled by the film and it put me on a quest of sorts to see all of Tarantino’s films.

This eventually turned out to be the last of his movies that I saw but of course in those days there were only a few to see. He had sold some movies made by others (Natural Born Killers and True Romance, two movies that are very similar) but when I started there was only Reservoir DogsPulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. He had done other things, directing a short in a movie called Four Rooms as well as doing some acting, most notably in Desperado and From Dusk till Dawn. I became an obsessive fan the more I learned about Tarantino. He, like myself at the time, worked at a video store and his love for films was what motivated him to achieve. He had no formal training just talent that he was able to transition onto screen.

In his debut film Tarantino set the tone for all that was to come. He got our attention with an excellent cast, drew us in with witty dialogue, and then blew us away with sudden and savage violence. The cast he was able to assemble for this low budget movie is quite impressive. If I remember correctly he was able to get the attention of Harvey Keitel who agreed to finance and act in the film. The budget was so low that many of the actors supplied their own clothing, yet so many big names were in the film. In hindsight most of these guys were simply in the beginning of their careers and most of them went on to become very popular. Guys like Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth are great in this movie but they would go on to do such great work throughout their careers that this is just another good one for them.

When it comes to the actors in this movie my favorite is hands down Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde. Mr. Blonde is easily up there with some of the coolest bad guys ever. His swagger, his complete lack of compassion, and his brutal honesty are all part of what makes him so wicked. I have said many times over the years that we did not get enough of Michael Madsen during his heyday. As Mr. Blonde he showed enough potential to be one of the most badass actors available but was never utilized enough. The torture scene is a rough one but I appreciate a bad guy that’s “all in” when it comes to the part. Mr. Blonde doesn’t care if there is a rat, he doesn’t care what anybody will think about his actions; he’s going to do whatever he wants and say prayers for anybody unlucky enough to be in his way. When he tortures Marvin Nash his violence is offset by the charismatic way he goes about his business. Set to the excellent Stealer’s Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” Mr. Blonde struts around and dances as he goes about the dirty work. After cutting off the officer’s ear he joking says something right into it as he holds it in his hand; sadistic yes but quite funny all the same. One of my favorite bad guy lines comes from his explanation for the much talked about shooting spree during the robbery, “If they hadn’t done what I told them not to do, they’d still be alive.”

My next favorite part from this rich cast is easily Chris Penn. I have never been a fan of his incredibly accomplished brother but I’ve liked Chris in a few things over the years. Chris Penn may have never hit it big like his brother but in this movie he is simply fantastic. As Nice Guy Eddie he is cool yet capable of intimidation. When he finds his friend dead in the warehouse he doesn’t hesitate to make a point about how insignificant the cop actually is by casually killing him. In his monologue afterwards, the strength of his voice and the fire in his eyes serves him well as it’s surprisingly very intimidating. In the final standoff he has so much emotion in his voice as he yells at Mr. White to quit pointing his gun at his father. I find it to be a really powerful performance. Penn was found dead of heart disease nearly ten years ago now but truthfully there was little hope left for his dwindling career in acting. Yet he gave us some good performances in his time and this is one of his best.

I mentioned that this movie is just another good one from Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth. It may be just another good performance from Buscemi but I cannot stress enough how much I admire and enjoy him as an actor. Buscemi has always been “the funny looking guy” but his career has blossomed into so much more than that. By all rights an actor with his looks should never succeed but not only has he succeeded, he has succeeded at plenty of roles that could have easily gone to others. He is so good as his trade that he has managed to overcome all odds to build a career any actor could be proud of, and there is no end in sight for him. Roth hasn’t had the same kind of success as Buscemi but I have always liked him. In this film he isn’t my favorite but he plays the rat and in a movie like this the rat is a character to be despised.

Harvey Keitel deserves special mention in this post because the movie would have never happened without him. Though, I have never particularly been a fan of Keitel and I specifically don’t really like him in this movie. He’s the guy that stands up for Orange all through the movie for all the wrong reasons. In the end when he goes so far as to defend him with his life it’s just too much and the character has always been soured on me because of it.

This is an exceptional movie and I have loved it since the first time I saw it. I saw it at a very influential time during my formative years and I will honestly say it wasn’t something that invoked evil thoughts in me but something that inspired my own interest in creativity and talent. This movie is even more exceptional because Tarantino made it with such a small budget and very little experience in the trade. Over time Tarantino has proved to be a rare and completely genuine talent that rose from nothing to be great, and did it all on his own. He has made some incredible movies with no formal training only the eye of imagination and determination to succeed. Everything that he is has its roots here in this movie; his debut film. Tarantino has a style like no other and it all started with Reservoir Dogs. This is a movie that you must see if you haven’t already. It’s generally regarded as one of the greatest independent films of all time and it left a significant mark on the crime genre. If you haven’t seen it then trust that it is worth your time and check out what you’ve been missing.

NEXT MOVIE: Return of the Dragon/The Way of the Dragon (1972)

 

 

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Pulp Fiction

Year: 1994
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Written By: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary

RYAN’S REVIEW

There was a time when I thought Quentin Tarantino had played all his cards and this was the best one on the table. I began to believe that whatever made Tarantino so successful was simply his collaboration with Roger Avary. I have since learned the err of that belief but for nearly ten years I developed and held tight to that line of thinking. At a young and influential age I fell in love with Tarantino’s films and had to wait for an appallingly long time with nothing but what I found to be the incredibly disappointing Kill Bill films. Those films, after all, were simply a sub plot from this film. When all he could do in that time was make a film based on a line from his most popular film I took it as a sign. In this film Uma Thurman’s character was on a pilot TV show thats plot was basically the story of Kill Bill. However, in the years since Inglourious Basterds we have seen that I was wrong all along and just a bitter fan getting pissy about wanting something new and incredible to see.

Tarantino has always had a mind for writing snazzy dialogue and it is on full display in this film. From the opening scene in the restaurant this movie immediately grabs your attention and then takes advantage of it with a charming scene of two hit men casually carrying out their jobs on a group of targets. Tarantino is a perfect example of why writing matters. He has always been successful delivering us shock in awe but the base of what makes him great is his writing. From there it goes up to his work behind the camera and if there is one flaw in him it’s his determination to get in front of the camera himself. I thought he was good in Reservoir Dogs and good in this film but I think he stretches it too much. I think it’s obvious Tarantino is a cool guy to meet and people are drawn to him in the business. Every one of his films has been cast with not simply a big actor but a group of them with others clamoring for cameos. I remember hearing somewhere along the way that he would make friends easily with actors and offer them parts in his next movie. Regardless how it happens I have always loved directors who worked with larger casts and Tarantino is one of the reasons I have that preference.

I heard once that this was the film that revived John Travolta’s career and I know that’s true because he preceded it with a third Look Who’s Talking film. If that isn’t something you do only when your career is in the dumps I don’t know what is. I think that is interesting because this role wasn’t even originally intended for him. If I’m not mistaken I think the role was supposed to go to Michael Madsen but he had a scheduling conflict. I can say honestly that I think Travolta was great in this movie and it seems to fit with film history that he is dancing on screen again in such a comeback. Nevertheless, Michael Madsen would he been better. There is nobody in the business cooler or colder than Mr. Blonde. Had he actually played his counterpart to Vic Vega his whole career may have been different and for the better. Movies didn’t get enough of Michael Madsen; he should have had a better agent in the 90s. The only problem is that the character of Vincent Vega appears befuddled and confused now and again, he gets killed by leaving his gun in the kitchen and well….he shot Marvin in the face. I couldn’t see Michael Madsen being so foolish. Plus, junkies are never cool, I think Vincent Vega using heroin makes him a liability more than an asset to a criminal organization and that drops his cool factor significantly. Heroin users aren’t cool; they’re afflicted with a problem that will eventually drive them to desperation.

This movie sports many cameos but one of my favorite of all time is the one performed by Christopher Walken. I am a huge fan of Walken and this film may very well be the reason why. Nobody has a cadence like Walken; his voice is great for comedians doing impressions. He has a presence about him, and he makes every film he is a part of better. Speaking of guys who make every film better, Steve Buscemi also sports a cameo in this movie. I love seeing Buscemi in anything but when he makes such a brief appearance in this film I just feel cheated.  Another cameo that shouldn’t go unmentioned is that of Peter Greene, which in truth shouldn’t be called a cameo but a part. Greene, like Madsen, is an actor that never got enough screen time. He has a sinister look about him, perfect for the part of Zed.

As it’s time to speak of Jed, Bruce Willis needs be mentioned. I have grown up as a fan of one of the greatest action heroes of my time. John McClain, Korben Dallas, and Joe freakin Hallenbeck for cryin out loud. Who better to wield a samurai sword against sex criminals? Bruce Willis embodies what a badass is supposed to be through my eyes that grew up in the nineties. In truth, this has never really been my favorite role of his, but under most circumstances I have always felt like Willis could do no wrong. I tend to pull for the mobsters in these types of films and Willis is as close to a good guy as it gets in this movie. The mobsters are great though, Ving Rhames easily gave his finest performance as Marsellus Wallace. Never quite understood why the boss was picking up the coffee in the scene when he crosses paths with Butch but otherwise he brings it as a powerful and intimidating bad guy. The kind of guy you definitely don’t want to drag down into the basement of sodomy and do things to.

While I feel like Travolta’s Vega is a bit on the goofy side as a hitman I think Samuel L. Jackson is the complete opposite as Jules. Jules is such a cool and compelling character that it could be argued that Jackson has cashed in on it more than 20 times over. I am a huge fan of Jackson but it is very often when I feel like he is simply doing his Jules from Inglewood routine. He gets loud, uses some profanity, and then something crazy happens. I still love it though, in fact I own Snakes on a Plane for no other reason than I love Samuel L Jackson being himself. The role of Jules was specifically written for Samuel L. Jackson after he failed to land a role he auditioned for in Reservoir Dogs so I think there is a lot of him in this character. Jackson has over 160 credits as an actor and continues to work at a rate that barely anybody can keep up with. The majority of those roles started piling up after this film. With “great fury and powerful vengeance” he took the industry by storm after his Oscar nominated role as Jules and there is no end in sight to his success.

This is the type of movie that offers a lot of talking points but I don’t feel the need to rehash old conversations because it is all out there now. We know that Jules’ biblical speech was written for the film and not specifically taken out of the Bible. We know there was nothing specifically in the briefcase. To which the answer never seems good enough for people, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Tarantino is still to this day badgered about that question. Theories include the soul Marsellus and even the diamonds stolen in Reservoir Dogs, but it has been said a dozen times by Tarantino and Avary both that the contents of the box were specifically left up to the viewer. We have an eye now for the Tarantino brands like Big Kahuna Burger and Apple cigarettes. I love the type of director Tarantino is and if he wasn’t such a genius people wouldn’t continue to talk about these things after over 20 years. He is making some great movies these days but this one will always be one of his greatest.

I love how he films these independent stories that are all random but tie together in the end. I love how it comes full circle with the robbery of the restaurant. Amanda Plummer is shocking with her sudden ferocity and so vulnerable in the end when the heat it turned up. I think it is such a compelling performance. Tim Roth is great too as the level headed stick up man. In limited screen time Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are able to convey such a powerful and interesting relationship. It’s great written dialogue and great acting all around. The “Bad Motherfucker” wallet that Pumpkin has to fish back for Jules actually belonged to Quentin Tarantino. I actually have one myself that Amber got me as a gift a few years ago. I keep it as a joke with a younger license inside with things from the past. The way I see it that younger version of myself may have been a “Bad Motherfucker” but these days I’m a domesticated husband and father so I keep it simply for the novelty of it and to joke about from time to time.

I haven’t mentioned two of the most important people in this film but let me explain why. I am not and have never been a fan of Uma Thurman. While I’ll admit she is great in this movie I haven’t thought Mia’s character was anything exceptional. I detest the use of heroin and her character’s OD scene doesn’t impress me as it might others. She looks really cool with the short black hair but I’m just not into it. Tarantino obviously likes her a lot though as he used her in Kill Bill and continues to allude to a third film as well. The Kill Bill movies are absent from our collection and normally I would buy such a film specifically to write about it here but I simply won’t have them in my collection. With the ease of Amazon Prime many unlikely titles have made it into the collection in recent years but at Kill Bill I draw a line. Those movies are garbage and I will not give in simply for the sake of how awesome Tarantino was and is again with new success.

The other I’ve failed to mention was that of Harvey Keitel. Nothing against him but I have always felt like the Wolf was a little overdone. I think the character is really cool, but much like Uma, I’m just not into it. Keitel is as much the reason for the success of Tarantino as anybody though so he is due plenty of respect. If I’m not mistaken he was the first actor to get behind Tarantino and had a lot to do with getting the wheels rolling on Reservoir Dogs. The role of the Wolf was specifically written for him and it’s a really cool role. I just never felt so impressed about this freaky fast Mr. Fix Anything guy. I do want to believe that guy is out there utilized by criminal organizations because it’s such a cool idea but I feel like a guy who shows up in the AM wearing a tuxedo is just too much. Are to believe this totally efficient guy is also pulling all nighters with the sophisticated crowd that parties in formal wear? I may love this movie, but even as an easily influenced adolescent obsessed with this movie I found it a bit silly back in the day.

This is a movie that has survived in popularity for an awfully long time and anybody that watches it understands why. I have a memory that has never left in which my future step mother talked about this film and the things she had heard about it swearing to never watch it. It was the syringe scene she mentioned specifically. That memory always makes me laugh a little because this movie is not for the faint of heart. There are people like my step mother out there that simply cannot handle a movie like this and I find it comical in a strange way. For the rest of us though, this is really something to enjoy. You can’t call yourself a movie buff without a healthy dose of viewings on this one. It’s a classic that will continue to be popular for years to come and influence countless more rebellious youths as it once did to me. This movie is without doubt worth your time over and over again.

NEXT MOVIE: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

The Doors

Year: 1991
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: J. Randall Johnson & Oliver Stone

RYAN’S REVIEW

Ten years ago this was one of my favorite movies and I watched it all the time.  In hindsight, that was probably part of my problem in my late teens. I haven’t seen this movie in several years since I took a ride with it and it led me to a dark place.  This is a great movie made by a guy that was really really high when he put his vision together.  You can be stone cold sober and still feel like you are tripping when you watch this movie, but that’s part of what makes it exceptional. The soundtrack is also noteworthy.  I am still a fan of The Doors and their music plays throughout the entire film.

Oliver Stone has always been one of my favorite directors and he made many great movies in the 80s and 90s.  Stone has never been any stranger to drug use and I think that is more than obvious in nearly all of his films.  Even in the beginning of his career he was writing the screenplay for Scarface and basing it partly on his own personal experiences.  He was getting really high while making his Academy Award winning film Platoonalso based in part on personal experiences in the war.  He has been busted numerous times over the years for using drugs as well.  I don’t think there is really any problem with an artist finding his creative motivation with drugs though, especially if he is making something great.  I do think he made something great with this film too, but at the same time I must admit it didn’t do me any favors in my youth and I consider it a disruptive influence for anybody young.

Stone was a fan of The Doors and he put a lot of effort into this film.  He did a lot of research when writing but took many liberties with the story nonetheless.  Stone does that; he makes an effort to tell the truth but inevitably deviates from the plan in order to tell the story he wants to tell.  Jim Morrison‘s real life girlfriend Patricia Kennealy served as an advisor on the film and even played a small part as the priestess in the Wiccan wedding ceremony.  Yet she still had a problem with her portrayal in the film and Stone later admitted that he wrote her as a combination of many women and should have renamed the character.

Stone was initially reluctant to cast Val Kilmer in the role of Jim Morrison.  Kilmer was persistent in his efforts to get the role and personally financed the recording of him singing songs by The Doors.  He played a tape for Stone saying that some of the songs were him and some were Morrison singing.  When Stone couldn’t tell them apart Kilmer got the job and what a job he did.  This is easily one of the best performances of Kilmer’s career and he did a great job of looking and sounding just like Jim Morrison. Meg Ryan may have had the leading female role but I actually think Kathleen Quinlan played a better and more significant part. The film also has a great supporting cast including Michael Madsen, Kevin Dillon, and Michael Wincott.

I don’t watch movies about musicians and bands very often because they all seem to tell the same story.  The musicians that get films made about them are all self-destructive and arrogant people that don’t look so good in the feature.  I’m thinking mainly about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles in addition to this film about Jim Morrison. These men were all heavy drug users who took advantage of others around them and I think the movies about them actually tarnish their memory instead of honoring it.  I don’t like watching films that I feel like I have seen before so I specifically didn’t like Ray or Walk the Line. I’m afraid I only have room for one film about a self-absorbed and out-of-control musician in our collection and this is the one that got my attention early. It has ruined me on all the other films like it.

This is a great movie but it does drag out a bit too long at two hours and twenty minutes.  There are only so much drugs and alcohol you can watch Morrison ingest during that time and it gets to be too much at times.  If you are a fan of the music made by The Doors then you should definitely see this film because most of their best songs are played.  Otherwise I don’t know that there is much point to seeing this film.  I think it’s a good one and I still like it but it is only in our collection as a relic from our youth.  This one takes us back and reminds us of times when we lived a wilder life but we are different people today. So I will only tentatively recommend this film and warn you of its well deserved R rating, this film is good but buyers beware.

AMBER’S REVIEW

Gah, I don’t want to even write about this movie. It takes me back to college and the days I don’t talk about anymore because, well I am a mother now and moms don’t talk about their crazy college days. This movie is by the great Oliver Stone, and I am sure Ryan expressed his undying love for above. It is beautifully made and captures a time in history of chaos while following the life of Jim Morrision. I love the way they played the music throughout the film. It had all of the iconic songs and more of the ones you know if you are a Doors fan. This is a really cool movie, and it was obviously made for people who are on drugs. It is really trippy, just like the time, the person and the music.

NEXT MOVIE: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)

Donnie Brasco

Year: 1997
Directed By: Mike Newell
Witten By: Paul Attansio (screenplay), Richard Woodley and Joseph D. Pistone (book)

RYAN’S REVIEW

This is a really dull movie made about an awesome and incredible story.  In a nutshell that is why we own it. I saw this movie in the theater in 1997 but didn’t own it till a couple of years ago after reading the book.  I am a big fan of any mafia/organized crime film and have always been fascinated by the real history it has in our country.  Donnie Brasco is a big part of that history and a truly amazing story.  Despite the efforts to cast the right people for this movie I think what they ultimately came up with wasn’t that good and could have been done much better.

There are plenty of problems with this film but I think one of the main problems is that there’s too much to the story to squeeze it into a two-hour time frame the way they did. Joseph D Pistone was undercover as Donnie Brasco for six years. The movie combines a combination of different stories from throughout those six years into one part of it, his time with Lefty Ruggiero. Another problem is the theme of the film and how it exagerates certain aspects of the story.  One thing that Pistone makes perfectly clear in his book is that there is no “code of honor” in the actual mob.  He says their portrayal in films is mostly Hollywood stuff and that in fact these guys are just scheming thieves and killers who will do anything to make money. Pistone never gets that close to crossing sides either, he was always in control of who he was and what he was doing.

Pistone first infiltrated the Columbo family in New York as Donnie Brasco and then moved on more seriously into the Bonanno family. After his six years working undercover he got over 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of organized crime members.  What I find interesting is how he actually managed to do any of this because he was on such a tight leash by the FBI.  He never actually broke any laws because that would have jeopardized his ability to get convictions. Yet he managed to infiltrate the mob despite this.  I think a lot of it had to do with how stupid the men he infiltrated actually were.  Ruggiero specifically was a real moron, yet still a very dangerous man. Pistone wasn’t on his own as much as the movie implies either, he often worked with other agents who were also working undercover.  Even some of them were found to be undercover yet Brasco managed to continue getting deeper involved. It really is an amazing story and Pistone is a true badass.  He had to make many sacrifices to do his job and he has had to continue living in danger even until today.

I don’t think Mike Newell had any business being in charge of a film like this, the project should have been given to a more talented director. I think casting Al Pacino in a mafia film is an idea that looks really good on paper for obvious reasons but I don’t think it really went well in this film.  He is playing the part of a pathetic kind of mobster that spends most of the film bitching about this and that.  Johnny Depp is OK in the movie but I wouldn’t call him exceptional.  Casting Anne Heche in the female lead is an idea that only made sense in the late 90s for about 10 minutes. I think the best part in this movie goes to Michael Madsen, but Michael Madsen is awesome in everything he does.  Mr. Blonde is one of the most ultra cool actors ever and he didn’t make enough movies in his prime. There are a lot of other notable actors in smaller roles all throughout the film including Paul Giamatti, Zeljko Ivanek, and Tim Blake Nelson.  Bruno Kirby is awful and has way too much screen time in the film.

This film received critical acclaim when it came out but I have seriously never understood why.  As a big fan of anything with the mafia in it I have always thought this was a dull movie and one of the weaker films of the genre. This movie isn’t dark enough to be a good mob film and there isn’t enough violence. With an R rating you have to take advantage of certain opportunities and this film doesn’t, it has no edge to it. I don’t think this movie is worth anybodies time, but the story is.  In lieu of endorsing this film I would like to instead encourage everybody to get a copy of the book and read what really happened.

NEXT MOVIE: Donnie Darko (2001)