‘Spectre’ – The Global Criminal Organization Returns to Haunt James Bond in the New Millennium

WRITER’S NOTE: The following review was written in 2015.

James Bond fans will be thrilled to know that the gun barrel sequence has been returned to the opening of this latest 007 adventure. For the past few Bond films, it has been relegated to the end to make clear just how rebooted this long running franchise became when Daniel Craig came on board to fill that tuxedo and enjoy the shaken, not stirred martinis. But now it precedes the action-packed prologue, and it’s just as well because “Spectre” aims to be more along the lines of the classic 007 adventures where the suave spy does battle with a secret organization which is bent on world domination and ends up seeing so much more than the NSA does on a daily basis. Still, it does have a strong focus on character as the past continues to haunt Bond to where the dead are not really dead.

First, let us get this out of the way: Is “Spectre” better than or as good as “Skyfall?” No, but this was kind of a given since the previous installment reached such extraordinary heights which the average Bond film usually never reaches, and this includes grossing over a billion dollars at the box office. In the end this did not matter much to me because, on its own, “Spectre” is a compelling and thrilling movie which reunites Craig with the brilliant Sam Mendes whose work on the last installment was impeccable. With this latest Bond film, they both are determined to dig even deeper into 007’s fractured and turbulent history, and it reintroduces us to certain character types and criminal organizations which defined many of the early Bond adventures.

After a thrilling action-packed opening sequence in Mexico, one of this franchise’s very best by the way, Bond is informed by M (Ralph Fiennes) he is being suspended from duty as his mission there was not authorized by him or the British government. However, we later learn he received a cryptic message from a previous mentor informed him to kill a man in Mexico and attend his funeral in Rome, and this is just the beginning to his uncovering the criminal organization whose name is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Suffice to say, they got everything covered.

Mendes hasn’t lost a step here, and he is also served well by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) who gives even the dirtiest scenes an inescapable beauty. This movie also has a great opening and unbroken shot which lasts several minutes as we watch Bond attend a Day of the Dead parade, head upstairs with a lovely lady presumably to bed, and then he suddenly goes out the window in pursuit of his latest nemesis who has seriously pissed off her majesty’s secret service.

The main villain is Franz Oberhauser, and he is portrayed by the brilliant and endlessly entertaining Christoph Waltz. This is the same actor who gave us one of the most fiendish villains in cinematic history in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” but he’s not out to replay Hans Landa here. When we first see Franz, he doesn’t even have to speak up or raise his voice to show how powerful he is. Everyone simply stands at attention, and no one questions his decision making at any point. This makes Waltz’s job even easier as his character clearly exerts a power very few bother to question. Some claim he is too quiet in his first scene, but for him to yell at everyone or shout to keep everyone in place would strike me as being desperate to keep everything under control. Franz doesn’t need to do this because everything has long since come under his control.

As for the Bond women (calling them Bond girls does not feel the least bit appropriate anymore), they are played by Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux. Bellucci plays Lucia Sciarra, the widow of an assassin killed by Bond, and she mesmerizes us in the far too few minutes she appears onscreen. Bellucci is said to be the oldest Bond woman ever, but does this really need to be pointed out? I don’t care how old she is because she still sizzles and holds her own against Craig even as he seduces her to the audience’s delight.

Seydoux is best remembered from her role as the beautiful but cold-hearted assassin in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and here she plays Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist who has a link to a person Bond dealt with in the past. She proves to be a strong Bond woman here as she brings up her tragic upbringing which has informed her defensiveness around those she doesn’t know very well, and she makes clear of how she has a strong dislike of guns. She’s a wonderful presence here, and she and Craig make quite the couple.

Dave Bautista co-stars as Mr. Hinx, a character designed to spark our nostalgic memories of Oddjob. Mr. Hinx is a henchman of few words, but his actions speak a lot louder than his words and leave a lot of damage in his path. This is not a henchman content with throwing a hat around as his hands do all the work and leave quite the impression.

Ralph Fiennes confidently fills the shoes of Dame Judi Dench’s M as Mallory, and like the previous head of MI6, Mallory finds he can control Bond as well as she could, which is to say only so much. Naomie Harris returns as Eve Moneypenny who has since settled in to becoming M’s assistant, Rory Kinnear remains reliable as always as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, Jesper Christensen reprises his role as Mr. White from previous installments, and Ben Whishaw steals every single scene he’s in as Q. Seriously, watching Whishaw is such a delight this time out as he infuses the role with a wonderfully dry sense of humor as he reminds Bond of how he has a mortgage and two cats to feed.

And, of course, Mendes brings back composer Thomas Newman to give “Spectre” an emotional and propulsive film score which will has me eagerly awaiting its release on compact disc. I especially enjoyed his collaboration with the Mexican contemporary classical percussion group Tambuco on the music they composed for the Day of the Dead scenes. As for the theme song “The Writing’s on The Wall” which is performed by Sam Smith, it’s good but nowhere as priceless as Adele’s “Skyfall.”

But let’s not leave out the man of the hour, Daniel Craig. Ever since he made his debut as 007 in “Casino Royale” he has not only made this iconic role his own, but has also given Ian Fleming’s classic character a humanity and a depth his predecessors hoped to give as much of. His respect for Bond is never in doubt as he brings 007 around full circle to where we learn even more about his past than we did previously, and how it has come to define his present state in life. It’s still up in the air as to whether this will be Craig’s last time playing the famous British secret agent who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, but I have to believe he has at least one more Bond film left in him.

How you come to view “Spectre” may depend on the kind of expectations you bring to it, and it’s hard not to have high expectations after the brilliant “Skyfall.” Do yourself a favor and leave them at the door and just enjoy it for what it is; a gorgeous and extravagant Bond film which, while a bit too long (editor Stuart Baird is missed here), has us wondering where 007, a man who another character describes as being a “kite dancing in a hurricane,” will go from here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Skyfall’ – One of the Best James Bond Films Ever Made

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012.

“American Beauty” director Sam Mendes has just accomplished the impossible; he made a better James Bond movie than “Casino Royale.” That one set the bar for so high to where it should not have been a surprise “Quantum of Solace” was not as good, but “Skyfall” gets my vote for being one of the very best in the 007 franchise. This installment continues in giving us a darker and edgier Bond as portrayed by the excellent Daniel Craig, and it also brings back some of the things many felt were missing from the last two films like the gadgets, the one-liners and, of all people, Q.

“Skyfall” starts off with a bang as we catch up with Bond in Turkey where he is on the trail of a man who has stolen the hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents. While trying to retrieve the drive, Bond is accidentally shot by fellow British agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and presumed dead. But being this all happens at the movie’s beginning, we know he will not stay dead for very long. While we watch him use his presumed death to go into retirement where he gets drunk off his ass while remaining deeply resentful of M’s (Dame Judi Dench) order for Eve to “take the bloody shot,” MI6 is suddenly destroyed and his love of England forces him to return to active duty. Upon his return, he soon discovers M’s nemesis has a very personal connection to her which makes him all the more dangerous.

This film does take its time to get going, but in retrospect it was worth it. Craig’s Bond has never been a superhero, but instead a vulnerable agent with weaknesses he cannot hide from others. As we watch him retrain, Craig shows us his Bond is deeply troubled and almost bent on self-destruction. It’s his duty to the country of England which manages to keep him relatively sane. This is Craig’s third outing as 007, and I still think he’s the best thing to happen to this franchise in a long time, and he looks to be having more fun this time around as he cracks a joke or two.

Thankfully, Craig never lets 007 descend into camp or tries to turn him into a standup comedian with a gun. While his take on this iconic role feels like it been deadly serious, seeing him loosen is a real gift as he has long since come to own this character. In a perfect world, Craig would get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but since the other actors who inhabited Bond never did, it is unlikely he will break tradition in this circumstance.

Now when it comes to my favorite Bond films, they usually are the ones where things get very personal for 007 and those around him. When this happens, they become more emotionally involving and exciting for me to watch as there is more at stake than just defeating a villain bent on world domination. This is especially the case with “Skyfall” as it delves into the past of its main characters in a way I don’t think any Bond movie has done before. The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan (“Hugo,” “Coriolanus” and “Gladiator”) places most of its emphasis on relationships, especially on the one between Bond and M. It is that emphasis that makes this film all the more riveting to watch.

Dame Judi Dench, who has played M since Pierce Brosnan first played 007 in “Goldeneye,” benefits here especially as her character is given a more severe complexity than what we have seen previously. Dench has always been superb as M, but ever since Craig came into the series she has been a fireball as she starts out with a powerfully brazen attitude which never ever lets up. But here we see the seams in her controlled nature as the past catches up with her in an especially nasty way. Dench nails every moment she has in “Skyfall” perfectly, and she makes M an especially fascinating character to watch this time around.

“Skyfall” also has the advantage of having not just one, but two terrific Bond girls: Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe. Harris, best known for her roles in “28 Days Later” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, shares a sizzling chemistry and playfulness with Craig, especially in the scene where she gives him a very close shave. As for Marlohe, she’s a knockout as she makes her character of Sévérine as enigmatic as she is beautiful. When Bond asks for the name of her employer, the look of utter fear which crosses her face is an unforgettable moment as it sets up the grand introduction of this film’s Bond villain.

The Bond villain of this piece is Raoul Silva, and he is played by Javier Bardem in a deliciously evil performance. It should be no surprise how brilliantly unnerving he is here as this is the same actor who won an Oscar for playing Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” But when it comes to Silva, he is an especially twisted soul to witness in action. This isn’t a villain bent on world domination, but instead on avenging a betrayal which made him what he is today. Bardem actually doesn’t make his first appearance until well into the film, but he has an unforgettable entrance where he tells a story involving rats. The Bond villains always have great stories to tell, and Silva’s proves to be one of this franchise’s most memorable.

And yes, we do get to see the return of Q, and he is played here by Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas”). Whishaw is splendid in the role as he skillfully underplays this classic character to where he makes it his own. Unlike the late, and still missed, Desmond Llewellyn, this Q is not quite in a position to admonish Bond on a regular basis. Whishaw, however, is able to match wits with Craig and hold his own in a way Q has not always been able to do previously, and he is a lot of fun to watch as a result.

Mendes remains a masterful filmmaker as he manages to balance out the action and the story in “Skyfall” to great effect. I also applaud him for not letting this Bond adventure turn into a clone of a Jason Bourne movie. This proved to be a big problem with “Quantum of Solace” as the shaky cam got to be a bit too much, but Mendes is perfectly aware that while Jason Bourne is Jason Bourne, Bond has been around long enough to where he doesn’t need to copy anyone. The opening sequence gets things off to a thrilling start, and it shows how Mendes has a talent for filming adrenaline pumping action scenes as he does in directing actors to great performances.

“Skyfall” also features a terrific music score by Thomas Newman and one of the best Bond theme songs in a long time performed by Adele. The title song brings back the classic Bond song sound which singers like Shirley Bassey made famous with “Goldfinger,” and it fits the movie’s story perfectly. While I miss David Arnold who has composed the scores for the Bond movies since “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Newman’s work here is exceptional as it sounds unlike any score he has done previously. It’s always a thrill to see a composer step outside of their comfort zone to do something a little different.

But another star of this film I have to single out among others is its cinematographer, Roger Deakins. While I was previously familiar with his work in “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo” and “Revolutionary Road,” the lighting in “Skyfall” is infinitely beautiful to where I am certain few other cinematographers could never accomplish like he did here. Whether it is Bond’s memorable entrance in Istanbul, his time in Shanghai or the climax in Scotland, he gives us visuals no other director of photography could ever give us.

I don’t think I have ever seen a 007 movie I didn’t like, and even the worst of them prove to be very entertaining to watch. Having said that, it is such a thrill to see a Bond movie where all the elements come together in such a truly fulfilling way. “Skyfall” is not only one of the best Bond movies ever, but also one of best films of 2012. It took four years to get one to the big screen, but it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

Space Jam: A New Legacy” is a film which was doomed from the start for one major reason: certain people do not like LeBron James and have an agenda against him.  Because they have these feelings, they were not going to like this film no matter what.  Personally speaking, I have nothing but respect for James as an athlete and a human being.  He has been a very charitable individual and someone who is very honest and giving.  However, people have this obsession with comparing him to Michael Jordan and these films.  The original “Space Jam” was released 25 years ago, and it’s not like it was a classic.  Nostalgia wins over a lot of people as they pine over “the good old days.”

I have watched “Space Jam: A New Legacy” twice now, once on HBO Max and once on Blu-Ray. I enjoyed it on the first viewing, probably because I went into the film with such low expectations and allowed other people to get inside my head.  I thought to myself, that was an enjoyable film for both young teens and older adults to watch together. After a second viewing, I must sadly admit it does not hold up very well as I see a lot of flaws. That being said, it’s not as bad as everyone makes it out to be with their ruthless bashing.  It’s merely a well-intentioned misfire.

James plays himself, and he’s trying to be a good father to his son Dominic (Cedric Joe) by pushing him to be the best basketball player he can be, day in and day out.  Dominic, however, is much more interested in video games, specifically developing them and trying to make basketball games more fun with style points and other cool features. In a flashback scene, we see how James was forced to throw away his Game Boy and focus on basketball, which is why he is this way toward his son.  His fictionalized wife, Kamiyah James (Sonequa Martin-Green), is trying to get her husband to lighten up and take it easy on their son.

One day, James is dragged along into a meeting with Warner Brothers where they want to further his brand into other film and television avenues. James would rather focus on basketball and politely rejects their offer.  This does not sit well with Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle) who believes James is just the right star to get in his Serververse called Warner 3000, which can put the basketball star into a number of Warner Brothers films and TV shows. The executives at the meeting are played by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of them here.  As a matter of fact, the best scenes in the film are the ones which take place in the real world and not in the “serververse.”

James is not afraid to have a laugh at his own expense, and this is part of the charm of this film.  They talk about the fact he has been on three teams.    He was great in 2015’s “Trainwreck.”  He has charisma, and I could see a future in acting for him whenever he decides to retire. I’ve always found him incredibly likable.  The heartfelt scenes with him work.  However, when he’s recruiting the Looney Tunes or when he’s playing a game to win back his son from Al G. Rhythm, the film gets really bogged down.

Back to the plot for a moment; once James turns down the opportunity to work with Warner Brothers, Al G. Rhythm is none too happy and decides to brainwash Dominic into playing a game of basketball against his own father using his video game rules.  I don’t think a children’s film should be this convoluted or long.  Seriously, the film is almost two hours long.

Essentially, what you have here is three things in “Space Jam: A New Legacy:” First, you have James trying to get his team together to win his son back and get him back to the real world. The scenes with him trying to recruit the Looney Tunes are enjoyable to a point, but the filmmakers spent too much time on them. Second, you have the basketball game which features incredibly annoying and silly commentary from Ernie Johnson and Lil Rel Howery. This game is just ridiculous.  Finally, the best scenes, as mentioned, are the ones where James gets to be a human being and not a basketball player spouting off cliches or a cartoon character. We needed more of this.

A lot of people were upset with all of the self-promotion Warner Brothers did for “Space Jam: A New Legacy” as far as showing off all of the properties they own such as Harry Potter and “Game of Thrones.” This, however, did not bother me, as if you have these things, why not show them off? I got a kick out of seeing Pennywise at the big basketball game. My issue is this film is too long, uninvolving and uninteresting. I felt they could have made an enjoyable, yet heartfelt, children’s film for the whole family to enjoy together as one.  Instead, I can’t imagine kids understanding a lot of the technology terms, and it’s too foolish for parents to enjoy.  It made money, so there was an audience for it out of curiosity I imagine. I was hoping for more use out of the many basketball stars featured here, but they are all quickly turned into video game characters. Everyone meant well here, but they tried to do too much when a simple and shorter approach would have been best.

* * out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It also comes with a digital copy of the film as well.  It has a running time of 115 minutes and is rated PG for some cartoon violence and some language.

Video and Audio Info: It is released on 1080p High Definition with the audio coming in on Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French and Spanish as well.

Special Features:

First Quarter: Game On

Second Quarter: Teamwork

Third Quarter: Out of This World

Fourth Quarter: The Looniest

Deleted Scenes

Should You Buy It?

I can’t recommend “Space Jam: A New Legacy” as a purchase.  I can’t imagine it will get any better with multiple viewings. As mentioned in my review, I enjoyed it as nonsensical fun the first time around.  On the second viewing, I saw a lot of holes in the film.  The special features are pretty lacking as well.  The film is very colorful and bright.  I feel like they could have made a good film as LeBron James is a superstar and box-office draw. For as many haters as he has, he does move the needle, and a lot of people do care about him.  He can also act! They just needed to give him a better script. He’s a smart guy, and I’m very surprised he didn’t notice a lot of these flaws when he read the screenplay.  He has shown a knack for making good decisions with his business ventures, but he missed out with this one. I’d rent it at Redbox if you are curious about it.  Just know this: It’s not nearly as bad as everyone says it is. It’s just run-of-the-mill and forgettable.

‘No Time to Die’ – Daniel Craig Gives Bond an Emotional Swan Song

Ah Mr. Craig, Mr. Daniel Craig. How nice of you to return as James Bond for a fifth and final time. Despite your infamous interview with Time Out where you declared you would rather slash your wrists than do another one, even you realized there was still one more chapter in your interpretation of Ian Fleming’s iconic spy. Besides, no one should have been asking you about doing another Bond film while you were still in production on “Spectre.” Heck, the last thing anyone wants to think about is the next 007 picture when they haven’t finished making the latest one. Even I would not have asked you that question on a press day.

But here Craig is again for “No Time to Die” which does indeed serve as a fitting swan song to his time as James Bond. Despite a running time which exceeds “Spectre’s” (163 minutes to be exact) and some flaws here and there, it proves to be a highly satisfying concluding chapter. But as thrilling and exciting as it is, my breath was taken away by how emotional it proved to be. Granted, “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” were full of emotions also, but this one seriously took my breath away to where I exited the theater saying to myself, wow.

After a prologue which hints at relationships which will have shocking revelations later on, we catch up with Bond who has since retired from active service and is living a happy and quiet life with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Of course, once we hear James tell Madeleine they have “all the time in the world,” you know the shit will hit the fan, and hit the fan it does with quite a loud and sudden bang. From there, Bond realizes he can no longer fully trust Madeleine, and he finds himself lonelier in the world than ever before.

Cut to five years later, and Bond finds himself drafted back into service not by MI6, but instead through his old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, finally and thankfully returning to the franchise) who alerts the former 007 about the theft of a bioweapon which contains a dangerous new technology which could wipe out millions in an instant. It doesn’t take too long for Bond to jump back into action as he reunites with several friends, a few enemies, and a number of surprises which may shock longtime Bond fans, but should also serve as a reminder of why Craig and the filmmakers went out of their way to break the rules in this endless franchise.

While it is bittersweet to watch Craig here, it is also a lot of fun to watch him inhabit 007 in a far more debonair manner than ever before. Seeing him dish out delicious one-liners particularly, in his first meeting with the new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), is priceless and had me laughing harder than I have in a long time. Never once did I see him going through the motions as he invests this iconic character with a wounded humanity which has long since started showing its age.

And with “No Time to Die,” we get a new director in Cary Joji Fukunaga. Best known for his work on the first season of “True Detective,” he also directed the brilliant “Beasts of No Nation” which could have gotten Oscar love were they not so white the year it was released. After seeing Sam Mendes direct one Bond film too many (and I did like “Spectre” by the way), Fukunaga, along with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, succeeds in giving this 007 installment a unique look which distinguishes itself from its predecessors, and for the most part he balances out several terrific action scenes with ones focused solely on the characters. Granted, the running time could have been shorter, but Fukunaga along with screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and the fabulous Phoebe Waller-Bridge keep you guessing as to what will happen next, something I do not always expect from a Bond film.

More importantly, everything is brought around full circle here. By that, I don’t just mean with Bond. Whether its Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Felix Leiter or Q (Ben Whishaw), everyone gets a proper ending. We have followed these actors for some time now and, like Craig, they have made these iconic roles their own. Considering how “No Time to Dies” ends, this is likely the last we will see of them as this franchise will now undergo another overhaul. It would be great if any of them returned, but it might cause needless confusion when the next Bond actor arrives on set.

And yes, I loved the Bond women here. Lashana Lynch quickly turns Nomi into a formidable 007 and is ever so cool from start to finish. Even when James gets the best of her, Nomi is quick to get right back on her feet, and seeing her stare down with such a beautifully icy glare is worth the price of admission alone. As for the lovely Ana De Armas, she makes Paloma into a wonderful tease of a Bond woman as she initially looks to be out of her depth, but then delightfully shows us how lethal she can be. The only shame is that Armas disappears from the proceedings early on, and it would have been great to see her some more.

If there is any disappointment to be found here, it is with its Bond villain. While Rami Malek gives Lyutsifer Safin an imposing and intimidating presence, the character is left hanging in the shadows for too long and is only given so much to do. Even after his first masked appearance onscreen, Malek seems to give a largely one-note performance to where I wished he had dug much deeper into his role. While Safin says he looks at Bond as though he is his mirror image, he says it with nowhere near as much depth as Javier Bardem gave us as Raoul Silva.

I also would have loved it if the filmmakers would have brought back composer David Arnold. I have been missing his music ever since Mendes replaced him with Thomas Newman, and this is with all due respect to Newman. Fukunaga brought in frequent collaborator Dan Romer for “No Time to Die,” but he left over “creative differences” and was replaced by Hans Zimmer who appears to be scoring every other Hollywood blockbuster these days. All the same, Zimmer gives us a terrific film score which heightens both the action and emotions and pays tribute to Bond themes and songs from its celebrated past. Granted, at times it sounds like he is echoing some of the themes he created for “The Dark Knight” trilogy to where I wondered if he steals from himself the way the late James Horner often did, but still.

As for the obligatory theme song sung by Billie Eilish, it is a thoughtful and moving song which captures Bond’s history and the past he needs to put behind him. It is no “Skyfall,” but it is miles better than Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” which somehow inexplicably won an Academy Award.

With Daniel Craig’s reign as James Bond now at an end, it will be interesting to see where the 007 franchise will go from here. I cannot help but fear for the actor who will step into this iconic role as he will have big shoes to fill, but I do remember feeling the same way when Pierce Brosnan was cast aside after “Die Another Day.” Part of me believes Barbara Broccoli and company will return to the over-the-top action spectacles which dominated Brosnan and Roger Moore eras, or perhaps they will find another action movie franchise or trend to mimic so the series can keep up with the times. Hopefully, they will remember how Bond needs to have an edge and not just be another clean-shaven spy.

Nevertheless, these past five Bond films have been a godsend to a franchise which was in dire need of an overhaul 15 years ago. While many say you cannot do this or that in one a Bond film, Craig and company said rubbish and did it anyway, and it resulted in many invigorating cinematic adventures. Hell, we even here the word “fuck” in this one, and if there is another 007 film where this happened, I have missed it.

Godspeed Mr. Craig, and thanks for all you have done.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Quantum of Solace’ – Not the Best Bond, But Not the Worst Either

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

So, what’s all this talk about wanting the old James Bond back? A lot of talk from fans about the latest 007 film, “Quantum of Solace,” is that they miss the Bond who had all the gadgets, knew all the best wines, had his martinis shaken and not stirred, and always bedded the most beautiful women. Wait a second, isn’t this what we were all getting sick of after “Die Another Day?” Didn’t we want to see the Bond franchise revitalized? Isn’t that why “Casino Royale” was so damn good? That it didn’t give us the same old Bond and gave us a tough new one who you could for once say honestly was the best one since Sean Connery? Did everyone get amnesia?

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Quantum of Solace,” said he wanted the producers to remember that James Bond is not an action hero. Not an action hero? Is that what you see here Ebert? Because that’s not what I see here at all. Instead, I see a man who is devastated by loss and betrayal, and who is trying to keep his head on straight to do his duty while trying to get his revenge. Maybe when we get the next film, we can get the Bond we know back, but this one still has issues to sort through, and he is still early into his British spy career. There are still bumps in the road he must navigate through before he reaches the heights of sophistication.

“Quantum of Solace,” as I’m sure you all know by now, is not the equal of “Casino Royale” which was easily the best Bond film in years. Following it must have been daunting for everyone involved as the bar had been set higher than ever before. The early reviews for Craig’s second go around as 007 had me curbing my expectations before going to see it, but I probably should stay in the habit of curtailing my expectations in general. It is a flawed film which has several problems that might derail others, but what keeps it afloat is Craig’s great work as Bond, and how he gives us an MI6 agent who is not just going through the motions. Also, he continues to share one terrific scene after another with the always fantastic Dame Judi Dench who reprises her role as M.

This 22nd Bond film is the first in the long-running franchise to act as a direct sequel to a previous installment as it starts off just mere moments after Bond nearly shot off Mr. White’s (Jesper Christensen) leg. It also literally starts off with a bang as Bond is pursued in a high-speed chase with the minions of Mr. White right on his tail. This brings me to one of my criticisms which I kind of see as a double-edged sword. A lot of the action scenes are filmed with the same shaky camera work we expect from the Jason Bourne movies. Seeing a James Bond movie instantly remind you of Bourne is not a good sign. At the same time, it gives the action sequences here a visceral urgency to where I felt those car crashes instead of just watching them passively. I have really come to love car chases like this one.

The QUANTUM of the movie’s title refers to the new evil organization which is the SPECTRE of the new millennium. Their goal is, of course, world domination and control over everything that can be sold at a high price. As a result, the Bond villain here is a man who wants control the world’s last natural resource, but it’s not the one you might think. As played by Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), Dominic Greene speaks to the public of saving the planet from global warming, but then we see him talk to an Army general about how they managed to talk some sense into the local government about not raising the minimum wage for workers since it would, you know, cut into the profits. Basically, Dominic is like the head of Wal Mart and someone we want to see get a huge bitch slap on a regular basis, perfect for today’s Bond movie.

But as Bond villains go, Dominic Greene is far from being one of the most threatening of the bunch and he will probably not go down as one of the series’ most memorable. Still, I love the glint of anger and overconfidence Mathieu shows us in his eyes, and his work is greater proof of how some of the best screen acting can be done without saying a word. Seeing him getting pissed when Bond spoils his well laid plans is quite a kick.

The Bond girl this time around is Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko. One of the best ever? No, but she is far from being among the worst. Kurylenko’s performance during the first half is a little too stiff, and her character seems underwritten. As “Quantum” goes on, however, she gets better once her real motives are revealed to us which involve revenge against a devious military official who murdered her family. The parallel between Camille and Bond is they are both after the same thing, revenge. It makes their relationship towards the climax all the more interesting.

But the real key relationship of “Quantum” is between Bond and M. The scenes between Craig and Dench are some of the best here, and it is no love affair between these two. It’s a mother and son kind of relationship if you can picture as both are estranged from one another, and are constantly to get back on the same page with each other. M wants to trust Bond but feels as though she cannot, and Bond wants to go after the one who almost had her killed. Talk about tough love.

Dench has been playing M since Pierce Brosnan debuted as Bond in “Goldeneye,” and she has been a huge asset to this franchise. She has continued to be a strong presence and has gotten even better since Craig began portraying Ian Fleming’s iconic spy. Right from the start, the actress makes M into the kind of person who will not take bullshit from anyone no matter their government or nationality. She is a real pleasure to watch in just about anything she does, and I love how she easily intimidates her male assistants who constantly tremble in her presence.

“Quantum” also features other strong performances which need to be noted. Jeffrey Wright returns again as Felix Leiter, the first actor to play the role consecutively in close to 20 years. His cool approach to Felix is great, and hopefully we will see him playing this character again. Giancarlo Giannini returns from “Casino Royale” as Mathis, and this could have been problematic as his character had betrayed Bond previously, and having him be the only person Bond can trust could have been far-fetched to say the least. But thanks to Giannini’s performance, he makes Mathis’ presence believable in story and welcome as his sadness over the death of Vesper gets him to team up with Bond. His final scene is actually quite touching as he encourages Bond to forgive himself. These character moments never get as much credit as the stunts do in a Bond film, and this one has them to give us a rest from the visceral action scenes.

Marc Forster, best known for “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” takes on the directing chores this time around. He almost seems as unlikely a choice to direct a Bond as Michael Apted was when he helmed “The World Is Not Enough.” His handling of the action sequences may be confusing to some as the editing is done in a rapid-fire manner, but they are still thrilling if you can get past this. While Foster doesn’t bring anything new to this franchise, he does keep things moving at a steady pace. At under two hours long, this is the shortest Bond film ever. Given how stringent the Broccoli family is about keeping 007 confined to a certain formula, I’m not sure how much freedom Forster was given to work with on this one.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are back along with Paul Haggis who is doing his usual screenplay polish here. Their work here is not as strong as it was on “Casino Royale,” and the characters are what really made it so good as it benefited all the other elements of that film like the action sequences. “Quantum Of Solace,” on the other hand, seems to exist more for the action sequences than the story which is a little frustrating, but they do still keep the central character of Bond very interesting and complex. They deal with the different layers of 007 and keep him from becoming a one-dimensional schmuck. There is some good work here, but not everything is as fleshed out as it could have been.

I also need to point out how David Arnold has been composing the scores for the Bond franchise since “Tomorrow Never Dies.” I love how his scores really complement the action scenes in all their ferocity. I also admire how he was able to move over seamlessly from the Brosnan era to the Craig era and didn’t simply repeat the same musical themes over and over again. I ended up buying the soundtrack a couple of days before the movie was released, and it is a great listen.

Speaking of the soundtrack, I should bring up “Quantum’s” title song “Another Way to Die” which is performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys. Everybody is trashing it, but it’s actually not bad. For me, it actually sticks in the head as opposed to other Bond theme songs which go in one ear and out the other. Look, I love Sheryl Crow, but here theme to “Tomorrow Never Dies” was one of the least memorable to where I can’t remember any of the lyrics.

Yes, “Quantum of Solace” is not one of the best Bond movies, but it is far from being one of the worst (for that, see “The Man with The Golden Gun”). It has screenplay problems and some characters could have been better developed, but the things which did work won me over for the most part. And once again, Daniel Craig proves to be one of the best Bonds ever as he gives this iconic character a rough edge and dimensions which have been absent from the movies for far too long.

No, he is not the old Bond we grew up with, but I am fine with that because this one is far more interesting to me. So please stop whining about wanting the old Bond back. We may get him back in a future installment now that Bond has moved on from his revenge cycle, but at the same time, I hope Craig doesn’t lose any of the edge he has brought to the British spy.

Whatever happens from here will be very interesting even if we have to wait another few years for the next film. All the same, James Bond will return…

* * * out of * * * *

‘Casino Royale’ – James Bond Reborn and Reinvigorated

I came into “Casino Royale” with guarded expectations. When it came to the James Bond films which starred Pierce Brosnan, I found they were best enjoyed with lowered expectations as they veered to the more openly ridiculous films of the Roger Moore era. But once this particular Bond film started with something other than the standard gun barrel sequence, I quickly realized how serious the filmmakers were about reinventing and reinvigorating this long running franchise.

To put it mildly, “Casino Royale” proved to be the best Bond filmI have seen in years, and it was far and away one of the best movies of 2006. For once, we had a 007 movie which actually bothered to take itself seriously, provide us with a villain who was not going after world domination, and a Bond woman who is not just here for display. After seeing the franchise descend into self-parody for far too long, I was stunned at how much effort the filmmakers and producers put into this installment

This film also marked Daniel Craig’s debut as 007. These days, it is hard to believe many were quick to write him off and say how wrong he was for the role of Ian Fleming’s iconic character. What a joy it was to see him have the last laugh on everyone. Right from the start, Craig makes this character is own and gives Bond an edge I felt this British spy had been lacking after Timothy Dalton departed the franchise. But moreover, Craig gives Bond a shocking vulnerability to where it seemed criminal he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance. Seriously, he was that good.

“Casino Royale” also marks the return of director Martin Campbell to the Bond franchise as he previously directed Pierce Brosnan’s first turn as 007 in “Goldeneye,” a film I did not give enough credit upon its release. Rather than simply repeat what he did before, Campbell paints a whole new canvas for Craig to work with, and he gives us a number of thrilling actions set pieces throughout which quickly prove to be the most thrilling this franchise has seen in some time, and they get extra support from the enthralling music score composed by David Arnold.

As I said earlier, this Bond film does not contain a villain bent on world domination, and I was thankful for this as those villains had long since become overused in this or any other franchise. Instead, we get Le Chiffre who is played by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor who has since become famous for his own interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. Le Chiffre may have an Achilles heel or two with his asthma and an eye duct which lets out tears of blood, but he is a formidable foe with his mathematical genius and brilliance at playing chess. Mikkelsen also dares to make Le Chiffre an especially vulnerable Bond villain as his immense ego gets pierced as easily as Bond’s does, and this leads to a scene of painful torture which we have not seen since “Licence to Kill.”

I also have to say how “Casino Royale” does a great job or making Poker such an exciting game to watch. Playing cards in a movie does not sound like something which would lend itself much to cinema, but Campbell milks Poker for all it is worth here to where seeing Bond stare Le Chiffre down is such an immensely satisfying delight.

Now let us go to the Bond woman of this piece as calling her a Bond girl would be an unforgivable insult. She is Vesper Lynd, and she is played by an actress as wonderful as she is beautiful, Eva Green. So memorable in “The Dreamers,” she quickly makes her strong presence known upon her first meeting with Craig on a train speeding to Montenegro. Seeing them stare one another down is a terrific sequence as this Bond film presents us with the first real love story it has had since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this is saying a lot.

If there is a holdover from the Brosnan era, it is Dame Judi Dench who gives audiences the most intimidating version of M yet. She never took it easy on Brosnan, but she goes ballistic when it comes to Craig as his Bond just reached 007 status. Dench makes M a tough nut to crack and a superior who truly means business. If there are any vulnerabilities to this character, we do not see them here as she makes clear to Bond she is not one to be trifled with. Dench is a thrilling presence in “Casino Royale” as a result, and it made me glad she would continue to inhabit this role for a few more films.

In a sense, this franchise has come around full circle with “Casino Royale” as the producers finally got the rights to Fleming’s book after so many years. But more importantly, they came to realize that this franchise needed a serious reboot even though “Die Another Day” was an enormous hit at the box office. While I am not always a big fan of origin stories, movies like “Casino Royale” and “Batman Begins” remind me of how necessary they are and of just how good they can be.

We don’t hear Craig utter the words “the name’s Bond, James Bond” until the very end, but this is perfect as it shows how we have many great adventures to look forward to from here, and we certainly did.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ – ‘The Sopranos’ Prequel Drags When it Should Entertain

I guess it was inevitable that David Chase would eventually revisit the world he created with “The Sopranos,” one of the greatest television shows ever. Vince Gilligan did the same with “El Camino,” the sequel to his acclaimed series “Breaking Bad,” and now Chase gives us “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to “The Sopranos.” But while “El Camino” proved to be excellent, this prequel ends up being nowhere as enthralling as even the average “Sopranos” episode. As much as I wanted to like it, I came out of it feeling rather disappointed.

“The Many Saints of Newark” comes with the tagline “Who Made Tony Soprano?” But while Tony is a major character, this movie focuses more on a violent gang war which takes place during the 1960’s and 1970’s in Newark, New Jersey. The main character of this piece is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a soldier in the DiMeo crime family who is also Tony’s uncle. As the story begins, Dickie and Tony are welcoming Dickie’s father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) who has just arrived back in America with his new Italian wife, Giuseppina. On the surface, everything and anything seems possible to all the characters, but we know eventually that everything will come crashing down upon them before they know it.

A pivotal moment occurs for Dickie at one point (you’ll know it when it comes), and he ends up visiting his dad’s twin brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti (also played by Liotta), in the hopes of doing some good deeds which will absolve his soul. It is during these conversations where Salvatore tells Dickie, “Pain comes from always wanting things.” This reminds me of what Mr. Spock once said on the original “Star Trek” series:

“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Salvatore comes to discover this the hard way. While he is serious about doing good deeds, some of us may remember how the road to hell is paved with them, and this is certainly the case here.

The screenplay, which Chase wrote with Lawrence Konner, paints a rich canvas for everyone to work with as it confronts the racial strife in Newark back in the 60’s and 70’s. We watch as African Americans riot against the racist police who abused a black taxi driver just because he was black, and it serves as a depressing reminder of how many still will not learn from history as America remains engulfed all these years later.

At the same time, Chase, Konner and director Alan Taylor, who directed many of the best “Sopranos” episodes, have given themselves too much to work with. While they have vividly captured a turbulent past, the screenplay lacks a center for which to hang everything on, and the movie ends up dragging far too often. As a result, I found my attention wandering in a way I never would have during any “Sopranos” episode.

There is a subplot involving Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) who has returned to Newark to start his own black-led crime operation. The actions of his gang lead to some moments of truly shocking violence which “The Sopranos” was known for, but this does little to alleviate the times where this prequel drags as no one seems to be able to balance out this subplot with all the other varying storylines.

I also got to say there are far too many obvious odes to “Goodfellas” throughout. Maybe I am a little biased because Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime classic remains my all-time favorite movie, but seeing Ray Liotta getting his head smashed into a steering wheel several times over just takes me out of the story for no good reason.

For me, I was hoping “The Many Saints of Newark” would focus more on Tony Soprano as he is presented here as a young adult, and it was fascinating to see how intelligent he was even when he does not apply himself at school. A lot of this has to do with the performance of Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini who originated this iconic role. It is tempting to say Michael got cast because of resemblance to his father, but he did in fact had to audition which was smart. From start to finish, he does a tremendous job of showing Tony to be a confused kid who struggles to find meaning in his life as he is forced to deal with an absent father and an ineffectual mother. As a result, it is no wonder he looks up to his Uncle Dickie, the only one adult who seems to be looking out for him. Michael is terrific and, more importantly, he makes this role his own.

It feels like it has been far too long since I have seen Alessandro Nivola in anything. I still remember him best for being Nicolas Cage’s brother in “Face/Off” and for playing the guy dumb enough to steal some velociraptor eggs in “Jurassic Park III.” But he is excellent here as Dickie Moltisanti, a man who wants to do some good deeds after having performed a number of heinous ones. Still, Dickie is a man whose passions typically get the best of him, and Nivola is great at showing the constant struggles he endures while struggling with a lifestyle which could see him get killed at any moment.

Indeed, there are many great performances throughout. While some have no choice but to inhabit younger versions of “Sopranos” characters to where they offer mere impersonations of them, others are a bit luckier. Vera Farmiga is tremendous as Livia Soprano, the same role made famous by the late great Nancy Marchand, to where if she decided to utter “I wish the lord would take me,” I would have been perfectly fine with that. In addition, John Bernthal makes for a very tough Johnny Soprano, Corey Stoll is excellent as Junior Soprano, and it is fascinating to watch Michela De Rossi as she makes Giuseppina Moltisanti evolve effortlessly from one scene to the next.

I do have some reservations, however, when it comes to Liotta, or half of Liotta anyway. As “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, he overacts to a painful degree as he tries to look and sound older than he really is. Watching him as this character was a bit unnerving, and thankfully this character disappears from the proceedings early on.  

But as the incarcerated Salvatore Moltisanti, Liotta brings an understated menace, the same kind he utilized in “Unlawful Entry,” which makes his performance one of the most compelling here as he dispenses advice which everyone around him would do best to take seriously. Plus, I love how the actor does not have to do much to show how serious Salvatore is about jazz. Seeing him stare at a Miles Davis vinyl record shows the kind of heaven this character seeks in life, and that’s even if it doesn’t bring a smile to his face.

And in a series where the dead characters are still hovering the lives of the living, I liked how Michael Imperioli returns to narrate this movie as Christopher Moltisanti as the character attempts to illustrate how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano. There’s even a scene when Tony first meets Christopher as a baby, and it proves to be ahaunting sign of things to come.

Look, if you are a fan of “The Sopranos,” you are bound to see “The Many Saints of Newark” at some point. What we got here is not a bad movie, and I am thankful that it is not the kind of prequel which hurriedly tries to tie everything together to match up with the events of the show. Still, despite some strong writing and performances, this movie is unbalanced and is nowhere as enthralling as a “Sopranos” episode should be. It sucks to call this a missed opportunity, but it is what it is. There is a lot to admire, but not enough to enjoy.

And if you are interested, yes, Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” is featured here. It would be blasphemy for any “Sopranos” episode or movie to be absent of it.

* * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: “The Many Saints of Newark” is the latest film to be released theatrically while simultaneously being given a month-long streaming release on HBO Max. I have long since found this form of release to be counter-productive as, while it may benefit HBO Max, it completely devalues the theatrical experience. While the COVID pandemic is still a big thing, I truly believe this type of release is one of the main reasons as to why “The Suicide Squad,” “Cry Macho,” “Malignant” and this prequel are dying quickly at the box office. I shudder to think what this will do to “Dune” and “The Matrix Resurrections” as they are being released in the same way, and these two movies demand to be seen on the silver screen. The sooner this simultaneous release pattern ends, the better.  

‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ is Cinematic Chaos and Lacking in Depth

I came out of “Venom” thinking its inevitable sequel (heaven forbid Marvel or Columbia Pictures lets the train stop there) was easily going to be better. The 2018 film was fun and I was willing to accept “Venom” for what it was, but I could not help but believe a better version of it could have been made. With a talented cast of artists in front of and behind the camera, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” had the possibility of being as good as any of the recent “Spider-Man” movies or perhaps be as good a sequel as “X-Men 2.” Well, what results is is nothing more than sheer chaos which is louder than hell, and it lacks much in the way of depth. Whereas this infamous comic book character once showed a lot of promise for a cinematic adaptation or two, it now feels like a tragically lost opportunity.

We catch up with Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and the alien symbiote a year after the events of the first film, and Eddie is still looking for a strong comeback as a news journalist. He finds this comeback while interviewing psychotic serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) who is on the verge of being executed by the state of California. Cletus wants to tell Eddie his life story before he breathes his last breath as he says, “People love serial killers.” But after Eddie and Venom get a peek at Cletus’ prison cell which contains a plethora of clues as to where buried all bodies of victims, they instead betray Cletus’ trust to where his execution gets move up. Cletus, feeling betrayed, ends up biting Eddie’s finger to where his blood quickly infects him. From there, it is only a matter of time before Cletus turns into another symbiote, Carnage.

The most memorable moments in this “Venom” sequel come near the beginning when the title character and Eddie struggle to co-exist with one another. Director Andy Serkis has cited “The Odd Couple” as a major influence on this film, and it certainly shows in the early scenes as Venom is desperate to eat and digest some human heads while Eddie struggles to keep the symbiote’s hunger at bay with chickens and a truckload of chocolate. Still, Venom is quick to physically drag Eddie all over the place to where they literally hanging off the edge of a building.

Of course, considering how messy these two are, I have to wonder who is Oscar and Felix in this relationship. The way I see it, Eddie and Venom could both be Oscar while the role of clean-freak Felix would remain unfilled. Or maybe Eddie is the Felix in this relationship as we watch him meticulously clean up all the trash Venom leaves. Then again, Eddie never seems to shave and rides a motorcycle, things Felix would never do.

Anyway, there is a great scene in which Venom attempts to console Eddie after he discovers his ex-fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) is now engaged to Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott) because she says he makes her feel safe (lord only knows why). Seeing this pesky symbiote make Eddie breakfast while singing him a song is one of my favorite moments as it is truly inspired and something I did not expect to see.

But then there comes a pivotal moment when Venom, having grown tired and frustrated at Eddie for constantly wrangling him in, furiously departs his body and searches for a new host. It is then in which Eddie enjoys the first peace and quiet he has had in what must seem like ages. And that’s the thing, I enjoyed this peace and quiet too. For this sequel to have a moment a silence felt so welcome to me, and it could have used many quieter moments as well.

Before and after Eddie’s moment of comfortable solitude, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is sheer cinematic chaos filled with endlessly loud noises and explosions which proved to be overwhelming instead of thrilling. While Serkis doesn’t go all Michael Bay on us, and I could tell the difference between Venom and Carnage during their fight scenes, what we get is a lot of sound and fury which signifies very little. Sure, there are some laughs to be had, but the story and its characters do not have much in the way of depth.

I never felt fully engaged in any of the characters’ plights even as the world they inhabit is threatened with utter destruction. We learn of how Cletus was institutionalized as a child, and it was there he met the love of his life, Frances Barrison/a.k.a Shriek (Naomie Harris) who is soon stollen away from him. In a film like this one, a broken heart is something to be deeply feared. Still, everyone looks to be going through the motions to where I never cared much for anyone or how things would turn out. The only character I really gave a damn about was Venom as we watch him going up and down the streets of San Francisco looking for acceptance, and seeing him find it at a rave was fun, however brief it was.

Tom Hardy is a perfect choice to play Eddie Brock/Venom, but while he is certainly not bad here, he plays these characters a bit too broadly. While everyone here has gone out of their way to embrace the silliness of the previous film, I was hoping he would bring more pathos to this, but we instead just watch him suffer through all of Venom’s madness while wearing the kind of jacket and t-shirt Axel Foley wore in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, and it all quickly becomes tiresome and exhausting.

As for Harrelson, he makes Cletus an entertaining character but does not bring the fear and malevolence to this serial killer which I have seen him do in other films. At this point, I believe Harrelson can play anyone, be it a hero or a villain, and we have already seen him play at least one American President. But here, the screenplay by Kelly Marcel gives him only so much to work with, and he never comes across as a serious threat to the protagonists. Perhaps if Cletus was more like Harrelson’s character of Harlan DeGroat from “Out of the Furnace,” he would have been a far more enthralling antagonist.

In some ways, Naomie Harris represents the stronger adversary as she embodies Frances/Shriek in such a slyly threatening way to where when Shriek screams, the actress makes you feel the power of her scream all the more intensely. Seriously, she makes clear how Shriek can easily render you deaf or, at the very least, can give you a nasty case of tinnitus which will have you begging to be deaf. Alas, it is not meant to be as, like Harrelson, she has been given a role which was not as complex as I thought it would be.

As “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” rages on to is infinitely furious climax, I sat back in my seat wondering if a theater employee would be kind enough to turn the volume down. I was never thrilled with all the chaos being presented, and I walked out this sequel feeling rather empty and let down. While it is tempting to blame this on the weariness I have since developed for superhero movies in general (I have not been in a rush to see “Black Widow” or “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”), this is simply a film which is not very good.

I figured with someone like Serkis, who should have at least 6 or 7 Oscars for his work as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” or as Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” films, would bring a sense of wonder and imagination to this material. Instead, everything here feels average and shallow, and the endless bombast quickly becomes numbing to the senses.

As comic book characters go, Venom always seemed a must for a cinematic adaptation, perhaps even more so than Captain America. His transition to the silver screen, however, has been a bumpy and rather frustrating one. The character’s first appearance in “Spider-Man 3” was more of an after thought than anything else, and it proved to be just as disappointing as the film itself. I did like the first “Venom” film, but many did not, and I think I have a better understanding of why now. This character came with many expectations whereas Captain America initially did not, and it is no wonder as to which Marvel character had the easier time in any cinematic universe it could be a part of.

Despite some strong moments from Michelle Williams, and she is fantastic in everything she does, and a scene stealing performance by Peggy Lu as convenience store owner Mrs. Chen, there is very little I enjoyed about “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” as it feels like a poor facsimile of many superhero movies I have seen before. If there is to be a third “Venom” film, my hope is more attention will be paid to the story and the screenplay. If we should expect anything from any “Venom” film, it should be for it not to seem or feel the least bit average.

And by the way, where was Eminem’s “Venom” song? I kept waiting to hear it throughout!

* * out of * * * *

‘A Clockwork Orange’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

As a film lover and someone who considers themselves well-versed in the world of cinema, I’m sad to report this was my first-time watching “A Clockwork Orange.” I feel like no matter how many films you have seen, there are usually a dozen or so that have just slipped through the cracks. This is the 50th anniversary of this Stanley Kubrick classic and, as a first-time viewer, I can’t imagine the impact it had on viewers when it first came out. I know from reading up on it, it was quite controversial and misunderstood, but it ended up gaining a cult following. After watching it last night, I can’t wait to watch it again.  Kubrick is truly a genius when it comes to cinema. There is always so much happening in his films, but everything is happening for a specific purpose.

The first forty-five minutes or so of “A Clockwork Orange” are a little out there and a little frustrating from a narrative perspective. The film is set in a dystopian Britain where a group of young gang members run around terrorizing anyone who gets in their path. For example, when they run into a homeless man, they beat him up simply because they find it amusing and comical.  In another instance, they go out of their way to create chaos and havoc for a writer and his wife by attacking them in the middle of the night.  One night, this group of four young men takes it too far when one of their members, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) ends up killing a wealthy woman. His three fellow gang members leave him behind, the police catch him, and he is sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

The early part of “A Clockwork Orange” is not necessarily hard to watch as I’m used to movie violence, and it takes a lot to upset me or really get under my skin.  It’s more so that Alex and his “droogs” are unpleasant to spend time with, which I would venture to guess was Kubrick’s intent as a filmmaker. This film is based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. I think they could have trimmed out some of their antics in the film as, at times, it’s beating the audience over the head with violence and becomes repetitive and dull.  However, when Alex is sent to prison, it is when the film becomes really, really interesting and takes off.

After being well-behaved in prison for two years, Alex hears about this experiment which allows someone to be cured almost instantly of their bad thoughts and impulses. They start to think and behave without any lust or violence.  The experiment exposes them to footage of violence, rape, and other heinous acts.  When they see this footage, they start to become sick.  Because of this, if they ever have the urge to misbehave again, it is quickly stopped because of how they feel after the aversion therapy.  The prison chaplain tries to warn Alex against it by telling him the good should come from inside of him and the choices he makes.

What happens from there makes for an incredibly thrilling and intense final act. The beauty of a Kubrick film is the details all around you that are happening in a scene.  For example, when Alex returns home, the way his house is shot is gorgeous.  Kubrick is never afraid to use colors and lots of them. He knows the beauty of imagery, color and scenery, and it makes the scenes much more effective. There is also his use of music.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to “Singing in the Rain” or anything from Beethoven again without thinking of this film. There is a purpose for everything in his films from a visual and audio standpoint.

I could go on and on about “A Clockwork Orange.”  The best praise I could give the film is that I want to watch it again and again.  Kubrick was a true visionary of cinema.  This film also has a lot to say about politics, drugs (think of the milk featured here), violence, sex, karma and so much more.  After I woke up today to write this review, the film was still in my head.  His films really stay with you and mess with your head in the best possible way.  On 4K, the brightness is taken to a whole new level.  I know I’m stating the obvious here, but Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is a masterpiece. I absolutely loved this film.  It’s a great reminder of how great movies will always stand the test of time, no matter when they were released.

* * * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-Ray Info: “A Clockwork Orange” is released on a 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It comes with the 4K, Blu-ray, and also a digital copy of the film as well. It has a running time of 137 minutes and is rated R.

Video Info: The 4K of the film comes in 2160p Ultra High Definition with a ratio of 16×9 1.66:1.  If any film ever deserved the 4K treatment, it is “A Clockwork Orange.” I plan on watching the Blu-ray of the film at some point, but the high dynamic range and the colors are on full-display with the 4K.  The film is mesmerizing to watch on 4K. This is the reason why more and more people are getting 4K TV’s and players for films like this. They were made for 4K.  There is no other way to watch it at home. The Blu-ray of the film comes in 1080p High Definition with a ratio of 16×9 1.66:1.

Audio Info: The audio for the film is presented in DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English, French and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish as well. This applies to both the 4K and Blu-ray discs.

Special Features:

Commentary by Malcolm McDowell and Nick Redman

Still Tickin’: The Return of Clockwork Orange [2000 Channel 4 Documentary]

Great Bolshy Yarblockos! Making A Clockwork Orange

Turning Like Clockwork

Malcolm McDowell Looks Back

O Lucky Malcolm!

Should You Buy It?

According to the press release, the special features are the same released on the previous Blu-ray of the film, which is a bit of a bummer.  One would have hoped they would have done an updated version of the special features, especially with it being the 50th anniversary of this film.  If you haven’t seen “A Clockwork Orange” before, you are missing out! I can vouch for that.  This one is a no-brainer to add to your collection for the film itself and the visual aspects of 4K. 

This film is going to stay with me for a long, long time, and I get to watch it again on Blu-ray and 4K.  I can even watch it on my iPad because of the digital copy which comes with this combo pack.  However, as Spike Lee says, do the right thing and watch it on 4K. There will never be another director like Kubrick.  Kudos as well to Warner Brothers for their recent upgrades of classic films like “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” They are on a roll lately!

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘The Shawshank Redemption’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

As of this writing, “The Shawshank Redemption” is the #1 rated movie on IMDB. I know it has been #1 many times in the past, and it has also been #2 right below “The Godfather.” It is based on a short novel by Stephen King called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”  This film is now 27-years-old and has not aged a bit.  It is the same with any great film. The more you watch it, the more you grow to appreciate it. The term “feel good” movie might sound overdone when it comes to certain movies, but this is one which does give the viewer hope and make you happy.  Hope, after all, is a big theme present in this film.

“The Shawshank Redemption” introduces us to Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker who is serving two-life sentences in prison after being convicted of killing his wife and her lover.  He claims to be innocent, but one of the running gags in the film is everyone in prison thinks they are innocent. Andy, however, does not seem like the type of individual who would commit murder as there is something about him which does come off as snobby and rather cold to the inmates.  He does endear himself to Red, played by the great Morgan Freeman. Red is the guy who knows how to get things for people in prison.  If you need a pack of smokes, chewing gum, or anything else, Red is the guy who is going to get it for you.

Red takes an interest in Andy because he sees there is more than meets the eye with him.  Andy is smart, well-spoken and really takes in his surroundings. The two of them have great conversations about life in prison, life in general, and regrets. The film, of course, is narrated by Freeman.  His narration is not overdone, however, as it adds to the film and enhances the story.  The Shawshank prison is run by a warden who believes in the Bible and discipline, and he is played by Bob Gunton.  The warden is ruthless, but he sees the value in having Andy at the prison because he’s running the prison’s books, doing taxes for the guards and is a very good hand who works cheaply.

For Andy, it is a chance to be able to create a library for Shawshank, allow certain freedoms for the prisoners there, and a chance to pass the time.  Time is something which goes by incredibly slow when an individual is in prison.  Time also allows the friendship and bond between Red and Andy to grow over the course of the film.  Red keeps getting rejected for release and he believes hope is a dangerous thing, and he is not sure if he will be able to survive outside of prison.  For many of the inmates, all they know is prison.  By the time they get out, they wonder what use they will have in the outside world.  It provides structure for them, even if it comes with the beatings, mental anguish and boredom.

There is a lot to like about “The Shawshank Redemption,” and it starts with Robbins and Freeman. They are the engine which keeps this film moving as it runs at almost two and a half hours.  The film is never, ever boring, and there are also interesting supporting characters such as Brooks (James Whitmore), an elderly man who has spent nearly fifty years in prison and works in the library. There is also the wild and out of control Heywood, played with manic energy by William Sadler. There is Tommy, a young hot-shot who keeps getting in trouble, played by Gil Bellows.  Even though the film is set in prison, there is no shortage of interesting characters to spend time with.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is a film with a huge heart that holds up very, very well nearly thirty years later.  I would most certainly put it in my top ten favorite films of all time. It has heart, humor and a lot to say about the prison system and if it really helps those behind their walls.  It also talks about the adjustment period from prison to the real world.  There is a reason why so many end up back in prison after they are released.  It’s also a gorgeous-looking film with a great sense of time and place.  I’m very happy Warner Brothers decided to upgrade this film to 4K.  The Blu-ray, which I also watched, looks better than the original release. This is a film that really makes one think about their life and how they are living it, each and every single day.

* * * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-Ray Info: “The Shawshank Redemption” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray Combo Pack from Warner Brothers. It also comes with the digital copy of the film. The film has a running time of 142 minutes and is rated R for language and prison violence.

Video Info: For the 4K, the transfer comes in 2160p Ultra High Definition while the Blu-Ray comes on a 1080p High-Definition transfer.  The 4K adds rich color and texture to the film.  It makes the film really pop off the screen and shine. This is a tremendous improvement over the Blu-Ray.

Audio Info: For both the 4K and Blu-ray, it has DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish Audio tracks. Subtitles are in English, French and Spanish.  The audio is also very easy to understand and stands out on both the 4K and the Blu-ray.

Special Features:

Commentary by Frank Darabont

“Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at The Shawshank Redemption”

“Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature”

“The Shark Tank Redemption”

Stills Galleries

“Bogs Takes a Fall” Storyboards

“New Fish Arrive” Storyboards

Should You Buy It?

Even though the special features are basically the same as the original Blu-ray, this film is worth owning for the upgrade to 4K.  Almost three decades later, this film is still incredibly moving.  I could watch this film at least once a month, and I’d still enjoy it and get something out of it.  This is one of those films where you are swept up in what is happening on screen from start to finish.  There is not a dull or wasted moment on screen. It starts with the acting, as I mentioned, but major credit must also be given to Frank Darabont. He knows how to really slow things down and let them play out in a meaningful way.  Did I mention the stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins? This is a must own for any film collector out there! I cannot recommend it enough.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.