Film Review: Blood Red (1989, directed by Peter Masterson)


The time is the 1890s.  The place is California.  Sicilian immigrant Sebastian Collogero (Giancarlo Giannini) has just been sworn in as an American citizen and owns his own vineyard.  When Irish immigrant William Bradford Berrigan (Dennis Hopper) demands that Sebastian give up his land so Berrigan run a railroad through it, Sebastian refuses.  Berrigan hires a group of thugs led by Andrews (Burt Young) to make Sebastian see the error of his ways.  When Sebastian ends up dead, his wayward son, Marco (Eric Roberts), takes up arms and seeks revenge.

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the famously self-indulgent directors Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola teamed up to make a movie about the American Dream?  The end result would probably be something like Blood Red.  Like Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Blood Red begins with a lengthy celebration (in this case, in honor of Sebastian’s naturalization ceremony) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film but which is included just to make sure we know that what we’re about to see is more than just a mere genre piece.  Like many of Coppola’s films, Blood Red features a tight-knit family, flowing wine, and a score composed by Carmine Coppola.  The only difference between our hypothetical Cimino/Coppola collaboration and Blood Red is that the Cimino/Coppola film would probably be longer and more interesting than Blood Red.  Blood Red is only 80 minutes long and directed by Peter Masterson, who seems lost.  There’s a potentially interesting story here about two different immigrants fighting to determine the future of America but it gets lost in all of the shots of Eric Roberts flexing his muscles.

For an actor known for his demented energy, Eric Roberts is surprisingly dull as the lead but Blood Red is a film that even manages to make veteran scenery chewers like Dennis Hopper and Burt Young seem boring.  (Hopper’s bizarre attempt at an Irish brogue does occasionally liven things up.)  The cast is full of familiar faces like Michael Madsen, Aldo Ray, Marc Lawrence, and Elias Koteas but none of them get to do much.  Of course, the most familiar face of all belongs to Eric’s sister, Julia.  Julia Roberts made her film debut playing Marco’s sister, Maria.  (Because the film sat on the shelf for three years after production was completed, Blood Red wasn’t released until after Julia has subsequently appeared in Mystic Pizza and Satisfaction.)  She gets three lines and less than five minutes of screen time but she does get to briefly show off the smile that would later make her famous.  Today, of course, that smile is the only reason anyone remembers Blood Red.

All Hail Jan-Michael Vincent: Red Line (1996, directed by John Sjogren)


Jan-Michael Vincent, back in the day

When Jan-Michael Vincent died on February 10th, we lost a legend.

For obvious reasons, the life and career of Jan-Michael Vincent is often held up as a cautionary tale.  Vincent went from being a rising star in the 70s to being nearly unemployable in the 90s.  When you watch Vincent in one of his early film, like The Mechanic or Big Wednesday, you see an actor who had both the talent and the looks to be a major star.  He was such a natural and deceptively low-key performer that it is not a surprise that he was twice cast as Robert Mitchum’s son.  He could play everyone from a hippie to a cowboy to a surfer to an assassin.  Unfortunately, once the 80s rolled around, Vincent became better known for his struggles with drugs and alcohol than for his talent.  After a brief but profitable stint starring in Airwolf, Jan-Michael Vincent found himself appearing mostly in straight-to-video action films.  By the mid-90s, he was a mainstay on late night Cinemax.  Even though the films had gotten smaller and his famous good looks had been ravaged by years of hard living, Vincent was still capable of giving a good performance.

It is impossible to talk about the legend of Jan-Michael Vincent without talking about Red Line.  In this direct-to-video car chase film, Vincent was cast as a gangster named Keller.  When an auto mechanic named Jim (Chad “Son of Steve” McQueen) makes the mistake of taking one of Keller’s cars for a joyride, Keller blackmails Jim into stealing a corvette from a police impound lot.  Red Line was typical of the type of films that Vincent was usually offered in the 90s, an action-filled crime film with a handful of recognizable faces.

It was also a film that Vincent nearly didn’t live to make.  Two days before filming was to begin, Jan-Michael Vincent was nearly killed when he crashed his motorcycle.  Vincent suffered severe facial lacerations and he would later tell Howard Stern that his eye was nearly popped out of his head as a result of the accident.  Vincent was rushed to the hospital and put in intensive care.

However, Jan-Michael Vincent still had a movie to make.  So, what did he do?  Two days after his accident, he checked himself out of the hospital and, unexpectedly, showed up on set.  With his face noticeable bruised and swollen and with the stitches and sutures still visible, Vincent played the role of Keller.  If you watch carefully, you can even spot his hospital ID, still hanging around his wrist.  The script was hastily rewritten to explain Vincent’s injuries and, though he could barely speak or walk, he still delivered his lines and filmed his scenes.  And goddamn if Jan-Michael Vincent didn’t steal the entire movie.  Even after years of hard-living (not to mention just two days after nearly dying), Jan-Michael Vincent still had it.  Even though he had to whisper his lines and film most of his scenes sitting down, Vincent was still credibly threatening in the role of Keller. He even points out his own injuries, saying, “I’m sick of looking like Frankenstein!”

Jan-Michael Vincent in Red Line

The rest of the cast was made up of an eclectic collection of familiar faces.  Dom DeLuise played Chad McQueen’s boss.  Michael Madsen and Corey Feldman (!) both played rival gangsters while Roxanna Zal played the young woman who becomes McQueen’s partner in crime.  B-movie fans will want to keep an eye out for Julie Strain, Robert Z’Dar, and Chuck Zito.  None of them make as much of an impression as Vincent, though.

Red Line was meant to be an homage to the type of car chase films that Steve McQueen made famous.  Chad McQueen even gets to drive a replica of the car that his father drove in Bullitt.  Some of the chase scenes are exciting but Chad doesn’t have his father’s screen presence and the film never overcomes its low-budget.  Watching the movie is a lot like watching someone else play Grand Theft Auto.  Red Line is a forgettable movie but it will always be remembered as an important chapter in the legend of Jan-Michael Vincent.

Jan-Michael Vincnet, RIP

Let’s Talk About Megalodon (dir by James Thomas)


Right now, the SyFy channel is counting down the days to the premiere of The Last Sharknado by not only rebroadcasting some classic shark films from the past but by also premiering a new movie each night.  Monday’s premiere was Megalodon and what can I say other than it was one of the most brilliant SyFy films of all time?

Produced by the Asylum (the same company behind the Sharknado franchise), Megalodon takes place out in the middle of the ocean.  An American military vessel is searching for the remains of a mysterious submarine.  In command of the mission is the tough and no-nonsense Captain Streeper (Dominic Pace).  Second-in-command to Streeper is Commander Lynch (Caroline Harris), who is literally fearless.  Observing is Streeper’s mentor, Admiral King and the fact that the Admiral is played by Michael Madsen is just one of the things that makes Megalodon one of the best Asylum films ever!

Anyway, the Americans eventually find the submarine, just to discover that it’s full of Russians!  Ivanov (Dimitry Rozental) and Popov (Aimee Stolte) may claim that they were just doing scientific research on sharks and whales but both Streeper and Lynch know better.  And when the Russians claim that there submarine was attacked by a giant shark, everyone laughs at them.

Until, of course, the giant shark shows up….

Now, you probably think that you know what’s going to happen.  If you think the shark is going to end up attacking the American vessel, you’re right.  If you think that a bunch of random fisherman are going to show up and get promptly swallowed by the shark, you’re right again.  And if you think those dastardly Russians have something up their nefarious sleeves, well again, you’re right…

But then there’s all the things that you don’t expect.  For instance, a good deal of the movie actually takes place inside of the shark as the crew of a diving bell try to figure out how to get back outside of it.  And then there’s the scenes of Streeper and the Russians debating global politics.  And, as I previously stated, there’s Michael Madsen as Admiral King.  Madsen only has a few minutes of screen time but he makes the most of them.  He delivers his lines with a self-mocking gravity, letting us know that he’s as in on the joke as we are.  He even gets a scene where he gets to talk to the shark while smoking a cigar and you better believe that he totally knocks it out of the park.  A lot of people on twitter pointed out that no admiral would have hair as long and unruly as Michael Madsen’s but they’re missing the point.  Michael Madsen’s job isn’t to convince us that he’s a career Naval officer.  In this film, Michael Madsen’s job is to be Michael Madsen and nobody does it better.

In the best tradition of the Asylum, Megalodon is a wonderfully self-aware movie.  It’s cheerfully and unapologetically over-the-top.  The entire cast seems to be having a blast and they’re all a lot of fun to watch.  Dominic Pace gets to deliver the Independence Day “We’ll Never Stop Fighting” speech towards the end of the film and he delivers it with just the right combination of sincerity and humor.  Caroline Harris brings a lot of authority to the role of the determined Lynch and both Dimitry Rozental and Aimee Stolte are wonderfully arrogant and villainous as the Russians.  And then there’s the shark, which is big and intimidating and who attacks boats and eats sailors with a panache all of its own.  Megalodon is pure entertainment and it all works wonderfully well.  Watch it with a group of your snarkiest friends and have a blast!

Megalodon gives us evil Russians, a giant shark, and Michael Madsen.  How can you not enjoy that?

Insomnia File #35: Donnie Brasco (dir by Mike Newell)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you happened to be awake at 2:30 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1997 film, Donnie Brasco.

Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) has spent his entire life as a loyal Mafia soldier.  It’s the only life that he knows and he can tell you some stories.  He remembers the early days, back when men like Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky were in charge of things.  Lefty is proud to say that, over the years, he’s successfully carried out over 20 hits.  Lefty is lucky enough to be an associate of an up-and-comer nicknamed Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).  While Sonny was in prison, Lefty kept an eye on Sonny’s family.  Lefty feels that Sonny owes him.  Whether Sonny feels the same way isn’t always quite clear.

Lefty’s problem is that everyone loves him but few people respect him.  The aging Lefty is viewed as being a relic and, at most, they merely tolerate his constant bragging.  Lefty may fantasize about the big bosses knowing who he is but, when he tries to greet one of them at a party, it becomes clear that he doesn’t have the slightest idea who Lefty is.  Lefty spends his time worrying that he’s dying and dreaming of one last opportunity to make a name for himself.

In fact, perhaps the only really good thing that Lefty has going for him is his friendship with Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp).  Donnie is a jewel thief, a tough and volatile orphan who Lefty introduces to Sonny.  Sonny is immediately impressed with Donnie.  In fact, Sonny thinks so highly of Donnie that he assigns Donnie to look over his operations in Florida.  Lefty can only watch as his protegé’s star starts to eclipse his own.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  As Lefty explains it, Donnie’s success is also Lefty’s success because Lefty is the one who brought Donnie into the crew.  Of course, if Donnie ever fails, the failure will be on Lefty as well.

As for Donnie … well, his name isn’t actually Donnie.  His real name is Joe Pistone and he’s a FBI agent.  When he first agreed to work undercover, he was told that the assignment would only last for a few months.  Instead, the months turn into years and, piece by piece, Joe vanishes as he transforms into Donnie.  The formerly soft-spoken college graduate is soon beating up waiters and chopping up bodies in basements.  His wife (Anne Heche) fears that her husband may no longer exist.  “I  am not becoming like them,” Joe/Donnie says at one point, “I am them.”

Donnie Brasco is hardly the first film to examine life in the Mafia.  It’s not even the first movie about an undercover FBI agent who manages to worm his way into the mob’s hierarchy.  What sets Donnie Brasco apart are the performances of Pacino, Depp, Heche, Madsen, and, as a talkative mob associate, Bruno Kirby.  As played by Pacino, Lefty may be a hardened killer but he’s also just a working class guy who wishes that his boss would just show him a little appreciation.  Lefty may be capable of casually shooting a guy in the back of the head but, at the same time, there’s something heartbreakingly sad about the sight of him tearing up a greeting card that he hoped to personally deliver to the big boss.  As for Johnny Depp, he gives a surprisingly restrained performance, rarely raising his voice except when he’s yelling at his family.  Donnie may appear outwardly calm but the stress of losing his identity is always present in his eyes.

Interestingly, for a mob movie, there’s little violence to be found in Donnie Brasco.  It’s not until 90 minutes in that we get the expected scene of rival mobsters getting ambushed and gunned down.  Donnie Brasco isn’t about violence.  Instead, the film’s heart is to be found in the  story of Lefty and Donnie’s odd friendship.  Instead of being about who is going to kill who, this film is about Lefty’s desire to be something more than he is and Joe’s struggle to remember who he used to be before he became Donnie.  It’s a touching and effective gangster film and one to keep an eye out for.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man

Sundance Film Review: Reservoir Dogs (dir by Quentin Tarantino)


The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance!  Today, I take a look at 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, which premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Technically, I guess I’m obligated to start this review with a spoiler alert.  Though, seriously, is there anyone out there who hasn’t seen Reservoir Dogs?  I guess that there may be.  But surely, even if you haven’t seen it, you know everything that happens in the movie.  You know about the Like A Virgin conversation at the start of the movie.  You know about the ear scene.  You’ve seen countless parodies of that scene where the cast walks down the street in slow motion.  I find it hard to believe that there are people who don’t know everything about this film but still, I guess it’s always a possibility.

Reservoir Dogs is a challenging film to review, though not because it’s overly complicated or difficult to follow.  Instead, the problem is that it’s hard to know what’s left to say about Reservoir Dogs.  Just about every crime film that has come out in my lifetime has owed an obvious debt to Reservoir Dogs.  It’s the film that launched the directorial career of Quentin Tarantino.  It’s also features one of the greatest acting ensembles in the history of American film: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Kirk Baltz, and Lawrence Tierney.  Tierney’s presence was especially important.  By appearing in the film, the veteran tough guy actor passed on the torch of hard-boiled crime to a new generation.

At its most basic, Reservoir Dogs is a heist film.  It employs the type of jumbled timeline that has become a Tarantino trademark.  The film starts with a group of 8 criminals eating breakfast and preparing to rob a jewelry store.  Then it jumps forward to immediately after the crime, with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) shot in the gut and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) desperately trying to get them both to the safety of a warehouse.  That’s where they are joined by Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi).  Mr. Pink is convinced that they were set up.  He rants about being a professional.  He asks if Mr. White had to shoot anyone during his escape.

“A few cops,” Mr. White says.

“No real people?” Mr. Pink replies.

Eventually, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) shows up.  We already know, from the film’s first scene, that Mr. Blonde strongly feels that everyone should tip their waitress.  After he arrives at the warehouse, we discover that he also likes good music and torturing hostages.  Meanwhile, the robbery’s mastermind, Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Eddie (Chris Penn), are also on their way to the warehouse.  Neither one is happy about how things are going.

And while all this goes on, Mr. Orange continues to bleed in the background…

Reservoir Dogs is known for being a violent film and, even though the movie is 26 years old, some of the violence can still catch you off-guard and make you flinch.  The scene where Mr. Blonde chops off the cop’s ear is still not easy to watch.  However, the scene that always freaks me out is when Mr. White starts shooting at a police car and the windshield is suddenly smeared with blood.  Mr. White is one of the film’s more sympathetic characters but he doesn’t hesitate to kill.

Of course, I think it could also be argued that Reservoir Dogs is actually as close as Tarantino has come to making a film that condemns violence.  Not counting the flashbacks, the story largely plays out in real time, which means that we basically spend the entire movie watching and listening as Mr. Orange slowly bleeds to death in front of us.

I rewatched Reservoir Dogs for this review and I have to say that I was really surprised to see how well the film holds up.  I was honestly expecting to be a little bit bored with it, just because I’d already seen it multiple times and I knew who the cop would turn out to be.  I already had all of the film’s great lines memorized.  But, as soon as the film started with everyone arguing about Like A Virgin and whether or not to tip their waitress, I was sucked back into Tarantino’s world.  Once again, I found myself laughing at Steve Buscemi’s brilliant delivery of the line: “Why am I Mr. Pink?”  I was enthralled all over again by Tim Roth’s nervous intensity and Harvey Keitel’s weary integrity.  Even Michael Madsen’s psycho routine felt fresh, despite the fact that he’s played numerous cool-as-ice psychos over the course of his career.  Even the way Chris Penn told the story about Lady E still made me laugh.

(To be honest, the line that makes me laugh the most in Reservoir Dogs — and don’t ask me why because I’m not sure of the exact reason — is when the unseen cop who is heard to say, “Yeah, give me the bearclaw,” while following Eddie’s car.)

It’s just a cool movie.  How can you resist this?

What happen at the end of the film?  Well, we all know the basics.  (And here’s where that probably unnecessary spoiler alert comes into play.)  Mr. White kills Joe and Eddie, all to protect Mr. Orange.  Mr. Pink runs from the warehouse.  The seriously wounded Mr. White cradles the dying Orange in his arms.  Orange confesses to being a cop.  Mr. White lets out a wail of both physical and emotional pain.  The police enter the warehouse and order Mr. White to drop his gun.  Mr. White shoots Orange in the head and is then gunned down by the police.

But what happened to Mr. Pink?

That’s a serious question because Mr. Pink is my favorite member of this band of robbers.  (He gets all the best lines, probably because Tarantino was planning on playing the role himself before Steve Buscemi auditioned.)  A lot of people will tell you that they can hear Mr. Pink being arrested outside of the warehouse, shortly before the cops come in and kill Mr. White.  And yes, I realize that, in at least one draft of the script, that’s exactly what happened.

Well, I don’t care.  We don’t actually see Mr. Pink getting arrested.  We don’t hear him getting shot.  As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Pink made it out of there alive and managed to escape with the diamonds.  The police may have yelled at him to stop but, in the end, they were too busy killing Mr. White to keep an eye on him.  Mr. Pink escaped and is currently living on the beach somewhere.  As a result of selling the diamonds, he’s now financially comfortable but he still doesn’t tip his waitress.  That’s just the way Mr. Pink is.

Finally, one little bit of trivia: Reservoir Dogs may have premiered at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival but it didn’t win any awards at the end of it.  Instead, the big winner that year was a comedy called In The Soup.  The star of that film?  Steve Buscemi.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough
  5. Blue Caprice
  6. The Big Sick
  7. Alpha Dog
  8. Stranger Than Paradise
  9. sex, lies, and videotape

A Movie A Day #217: Wyatt Earp (1994, directed by Lawrence Kasdan)


Once upon a time, there were two movies about the legendary Western lawman (or outlaw, depending on who is telling the story) Wyatt Earp.  One came out in 1993 and the other came out in 1994.

The 1993 movie was called Tombstone.  That is the one that starred Kurt Russell was Wyatt, with Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton in the roles of his brothers and Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday.  Tombstone deals with the circumstances that led to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  “I’m your huckleberry,” Doc Holliday says right before his gunfight with Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo.  Tombstone is the movie that everyone remembers.

The 1994 movies was called Wyatt Earp.  This was a big budget extravaganza that was directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starred Kevin Costner as Wyatt.  Dennis Quaid played Doc Holliday and supporting roles were played by almost everyone who was an active SAG member in 1994.  If they were not in Tombstone, they were probably in Wyatt Earp.  Gene Hackman, Michael Madsen, Tom Sizemore, Jeff Fahey, Mark Harmon, Annabeth Gish, Gene Hackman, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rossellini, JoBeth Williams, Mare Winningham, and many others all appeared as supporting characters in the (very) long story of Wyatt Earp’s life.

Of course, Wyatt Earp features the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral but it also deals with every other chapter of Earp’s life, including his multiple marriages, his career as a buffalo hunter, and his time as a gold prospector.  With a three-hour running time, there is little about Wyatt Earp’s life that is not included.  Unfortunately, with the exception of his time in Tomstone, Wyatt Earp’s life was not that interesting.  Neither was Kevin Costner’s performance.  Costner tried to channel Gary Cooper in his performance but Cooper would have known better than to have starred in a slowly paced, three-hour movie.  The film is so centered around Costner and his all-American persona that, with the exception of Dennis Quaid, the impressive cast is wasted in glorified cameos.  Wyatt Earp the movie tries to be an elegy for the old west but neither Wyatt Earp as a character nor Kevin Costner’s performance was strong enough to carry such heavy symbolism.  A good western should never be boring and that is a rule that Wyatt Earp breaks from the minute that Costner delivers his first line.

Costner was originally cast in Tombstone, just to leave the project so he could produce his own Wyatt Earp film.  As a big, Oscar-winnng star, Costner went as far as to try to have production of Tombstone canceled.  Ironically, Tombstone turned out to be the film that everyone remember while Wyatt Earp is the film that most people want to forget.

A Movie A Day #19: Kill Me Again (1989, directed by John Dahl)


killmeagainFay Forrest (Joanne Whalley) and her boyfriend, Vince Miller (Michael Madsen), make their living stealing from the mob.  After their latest job results in the death of a made man, Fay decides that she needs to escape from the abusive Vince.  She runs away to Las Vegas, where she looks up a small-time, financially strapped P.I., Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer).  She hires Jack to help her fake her death, offering to pay him $5,000 upfront and $5,000 after she’s dead.  Jack is reluctant to get involved but he also has a loan shark threatening to break every bone in his body.  Jack helps Fay fake her death but then Fay leaves town without paying him the second $5,000.  Even worse, both Vince and the mob quickly figure out that Fay is not actually dead and join Jack in trying to track her down.

Predictable but entertaining, Kill Me Again is an early example of the type of modern neo-noir that would become extremely popular in the 1990s.  In his directorial debut, John Dahl shows some hints of the style that he later brought to films like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction.  Val Kilmer was miscast and a few years too young for his role but Joanne Whalley (or Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as she was known when Kill Me Again was filmed) fully inhabitanted the stock role of the sultry femme fatale who can never quite be trusted.  Michael Madsen goes all out as Vince, giving an early version of his performance in Reservoir Dogs.