The ‘Total Recall’ Remake is as Unnecessary as Many Remakes Are

After watching Len Wiseman’s remake of “Total Recall,” I wanted to ask my fellow audience members what they thought of it in hopes of finding a few who hadn’t seen the original directed by Paul Verhoeven. I actually found myself getting bored while watching this particular cinematic interpretation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” and I figured it was because I had seen the original dozens of times. But in retrospect, I don’t think it would have made a difference because my attitude towards this new version would have been the same in that it does not work in the slightest.

This is really a shame because Wiseman, best known for his “Underworld” movies and “Live Free or Die Hard,” had me coming into this remake with high hopes. I figured he would make this material his own and create an endlessly entertaining action flick. Instead, he drains all the fun out of the story, and what we get is a depressingly bland and uninspired motion picture which will be easily forgotten regardless of its excellent visual effects.

The story remains the same as before. Construction worker Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is living an ordinary existence with his loving wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), and wonders why his life isn’t further along than it already is. He attempts to remedy this by going to Rekall, a company which specializes in artificial memory implants, but it all goes haywire when he is met by a SWAT team whom he quickly eliminates. From there, he is on the run as he comes to discover is life was never what he thought it was to begin with.

The only real difference between this “Total Recall” and the original is that Wiseman keeps the action earthbound. No one gets their ass to Mars this time around as the future presented here shows Earth having been decimated by a global chemical war which has divided it into two superpowers: the United Federation of Britain and The Colony. They are both battling one another for supremacy, and transportation to and from each nation is done via “The Fall,” an enormous gravity elevator which functions like the Lex Luthor’s Escape ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain.  If there is a difference, it is that the characters here have long since gotten used to the speed of the drop.

With this “Total Recall” not taking its story to Mars, I was convinced Wiseman would be giving us something other than the same old thing with this remake. Having said that, events here are not much different from what Verhoeven gave us years ago. Even if this particular version did get its ass to Mars, I’m not sure it would have made things all that more interesting. Even with actresses like Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, I’m surprised this remake didn’t go all the way to Uranus (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Speaking of Beckinsale, she is one of “Total Recall’s” best assets. Some will say her Lori is not much different from her character of Selene from the “Underworld” movies, and that the only difference is that Lori is not wearing any tight-fitting leather clothing here. Whatever the case, I don’t really care because it’s a lot of fun watching Beckinsale kick butt at any chance she gets. That fierce look in her eyes is hard to pass up as she aims to eliminate her antagonists, particular Douglas Quaid, with extreme prejudice.

Biel is also fun to watch as Melina, and that’s even though her character feels like the same one she played in “The A-Team.” Other actors like Bryan Cranston who plays President Vilos Cohaagen and Bill Nighy who portrays rebel leader Matthias are wasted in roles which are ridiculously underwritten. This is a shame in the case of Cranston who looks to be having some fun playing such a corrupt leader.

Now Colin Farrell is a far more accomplished actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger, but even the former Governor of California proves to be the better Douglas Quaid. Farrell isn’t bad, but Schwarzenegger had such a strong screen presence in the 1990 film which is hard for anyone to compete with.

I’m guessing that ever since Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, filmmakers have done their best to avoid campiness in action films. The original “Total Recall” did have a level of campiness about it, but that made ir all the more entertaining to watch.

For Wiseman, his “Total Recall” represents a total immersion into the realm of CGI effects. With “Live Free or Die Hard,” he didn’t rely on as he was determined to use the real thing as much as possible. That made the action in that sequl all the more invigorating, and I wish he got more of an opportunity to go in that direction with “Total Recall.” True, the special effects are amazing especially in the design of the cities which the characters inhabit, but the action scenes lack friction as you cannot past the fact that you are watching something which is nothing more than a visual effect.-

With Verhoeven’s “Total Recall,” you could never figure out if what you were watching was real or a dream, and he teased you with the possibilities throughout. but Wiseman instead makes the story more straightforward which frustratingly robs the story of its more suspenseful moments. The tension ends up disappearing at key moments which makes what we see utterly frustrating as a result.

In a sea of endless Hollywood remakes, “Total Recall” proves to be one of the most unnecessary. Someone like me is at a disadvantage here because I’m huge fan of the 1990 version, but this one is nowhere as much fun.

As for Wiseman making more movies which are dominated by CGI effects, he should consider this a divorce. Come on Wiseman, you are so much better than this!

* * out of * * * *

‘Bullet Train’ – A Bumpy but Entertaining Ride Thanks to Brad Pitt

Bullet Train” is one of those movies which takes you on an adrenaline-fueled ride and leaves you wrung out at its incredibly chaotic conclusion. Now I usually begin writing movie reviews soon after I watch one, but I had to sit down for a bit after and gather my thoughts when it came to this particular feature film. Yes, it is furiously entertaining, but the story does drag from time to time and there are moments which defy simple logic. Also, some have accused the film of trying to be Tarantino-esque as the director wants the characters to look and sound cool when they talk. My response to those criticisms is this: didn’t the trailers spell out to you that this is a motion picture which you will need to check your brain at the door while watching it?

Based on the Japanese novel “Maria Beetle” by Kōtarō Isaka, “Bullet Train” is not a perfect movie, few movies are for crying out loud, but for the most part I found myself really enjoying the chaos on display as we watch Brad Pitt portray an American assassin who makes his way through a Japanese train going at a speed of about 200 miles an hour through the country’s vast railway system.

Pitt’s character has no name here, but he is given the codename of Ladybug by his contact and handler, Maria Beetle (voiced by an Oscar winning actress whose voice you will recognize). His mission is a snatch-and-grab one as he is to collect a suitcase on a train heading to Kyoto and then get off at the next stop. Ladybug is also an experienced assassin who has been doing his job for far too long, and this looks to be one of those last mission before retirement gigs for him. Also, he is trying to find some inner peace in the midst of all his deadly deeds and is quick to encourage others to do the same. Yes, “Bullet Train” is that kind of movie.

Now Ladybug is quick to acquire the briefcase which acts as this movie’s McGuffin, but getting off the train quickly turns into an insane comedy of errors as he keeps running into other assassins whose missions prove to be very similar to his. Among them are British assassins Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Japanese assassin Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) who looks to avenge his son who lies in the hospital in critical condition, a Mexican assassin known as The Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny) who has a special grudge against Ladybug, and Prince (Joey King) who is a British assassin who received her codename only because her parents really wanted a boy instead of a girl.

With everything set up, we know these characters will eventually collide with one another in inventive and creative ways as their individual missions have an inevitable connection. Seeing it all happen on a train traveling at a very high speed is especially exciting as, while these assassins are trying to kill or trick one another, the rest of the passengers are sitting in their seats as, to quote a line from another movie starring Pitt, “calm as Hindu cows.” Oh yeah, there is a venomous snake which manages to escape its cage and slither about the train in the same way that spider crawled around the McCallister house in “Home Alone,” and you sit in fear of it striking at the least suspecting passenger.

Directing “Bullet Train” is David Leitch who helmed the very first “John Wick” film, the insanely entertaining “Deadpool 2,” and “Atomic Blonde” which starred Charlize Theron who gave a performance which should have had you saying, “not bad for a human.” Clearly, he is out to give us a fun-filled ride, and he delivers for the most part. Not everything lands in the way it should as some moments fall flat, but those which do hit had me enthralled and laughing my ass off. While it may not be as thrilling as “Top Gun: Maverick” or the vastly underappreciated “Ambulance,” Leitch for my money gives this motion picture more entertaining set pieces than not, and that makes it worth seeing in my opinion.

The other actors go out of their way to fully inhabit their roles regardless of whether or not their screen time is long or short. Both Taylor-Johnson and Henry work off of one another very well, and that’s even though I could not always understand every word coming out of their mouths. As for Henry, his character of Lemon goes out of his way to give us all a special appreciation of the British children’s television series “Thomas & Friends” and of all the different kinds of trains there are in the world.

One of my favorite performances comes from Joey King as the oddly named Prince. From the first time we see her, she proves to be an alluring presence as she uses her disguise as a schoolgirl to gleefully throw her antagonists off-balance in an almost sublime manner. Her eyes show us a character who is infinitely dedicated to taking out her main target with extreme prejudice, but she also succeeds brilliantly in deceiving those around her ever so easily. Seriously, King steals every scene she is in.

But yes, the one person who manages to connect everything together here is Brad Pitt who once again proves why he is one of Hollywood’s best and most dependable of movie stars. Even if his performance threatens to be too broad at times, he made this film especially fun and looks to be having the time of his life. There’s also a scene where we see him traveling through the train cars in slow motion (you will now what I am talking about when it happens), and the expressions he gives off prove to be absolutely priceless.

Now I cannot say that “Bullet Train” will remain in the mind long after you have watched it but watching proved to be a blast for the most part. While many may say it pales in comparison to other films from its genre, I was never quick to compare it to others. There may a few bumps and lags on this particular train ride, but I still enjoyed this film for what it was, and that was enough for me. And, like “Where the Crawdads Sing,” it makes me want to read the book it is based on.

Oh, there are some truly brilliant celebrity cameos to be found here, especially towards the end. Seriously, they are alone worth the price of admission, particularly when it comes to the one actor playing an assassin named Carver.

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Premium Rush’ Lives Up to Its Name

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

David Koepp’s “Premium Rush” is the best cycling movie in some time. Come to think of it, when was the last time a cycling movie was made and released? I keep thinking it was Hal Needham’s “Rad,” but that came out in 1986. There’s also no topping the classic “Breaking Away,” the cycling movie many aspire to be like. There was also “American Flyers” which was released in 1985 and was written by Steve Tesich, the same one who wrote the screenplay for “Breaking Away.” But when it comes to “American Flyers,” I think its fantastic music score easily upstaged the film itself.

Anyway, none of that matters because “Premium Rush” delivers the goods like any cycling film should, and it does so with terrific acting, sharp writing and what looks like the real thing with a wonderfully severe lack of CGI as we watch these daredevil bike messengers throttle their way through the insanely busy streets of New York City.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, one of the very best bicycle messengers in New York who gets things to where they need to be and on schedule. Of course, this requires him to travel at breakneck speeds through busy traffic where a car can break down at the most inconvenient time, and he also has to deal with various members of the NYPD who have it in for him and others in his line of work. One other thing, Wilee’s bike of choice has only one gear, and he’s taken the brakes off of so that nothing will slow him down. Seriously, that is how he rolls.

Taking this into account, I wonder if Wilee has a death wish or if he’s just an adrenaline junkie. What we do learn about him is that he came close to becoming a lawyer, but the idea of sitting behind a desk in some office did not appeal to him in the slightest. Of course, it probably wouldn’t appeal to anyone who has seen “Office Space.”

His ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), however, entertains thoughts of working in an office as she doesn’t want to be a bike messenger forever, and that’s even though she says it beats waiting tables. There’s also Tito (Anthony Chisholm) who doesn’t let his advanced age make him any less useful in this line of work (nor should it by the way), and Manny (Wolé Parks) who competes with Wilee not just on a bike but for Vanessa as well.

On this one particular day in which this movie takes place, Wilee is delivering a package that has caught the attention of NYPD cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). Now Bobby wants what Wilee has, but while Wilee is not always one to obey the rules of the road, he does follow the strict guidelines of his job which states messengers will not hand over the package they are delivering to anyone other than who it is meant for. As a result, Bobby begins chasing Wilee down as we find out that this NYPD cop, like any other stupid gambling addict, has a ridiculously high debt to pay off.

The film’s director, David Koepp, is best known as a screenwriter, having written such exciting movies like “Jurassic Park,” “Spider-Man” and “Panic Room.” Along with co-writer John Kamps, Koepp has great fun telling the story of “Premium Rush” in a non-linear fashion. The story goes back and forth in time as the characters’ actions are made very understandable and given more depth throughout. This way of storytelling may alienate certain audience members, but I liked it as it plays around with our perceptions of what we believe to be true. Just when you think you know what’s going on to happen, something comes along which obliterates your predictions.

As a director, Koepp has had varying degrees of success with movies like “The Trigger Effect,” “Stir of Echoes” and “Secret Window,” but here he manages to keep the action exciting and never lets it drag for a second. It also helps that the cycling we see here is done for real, and it makes me wonder how it was choreographed and who these stunt people are. Clearly, they dared to pedal fast while cars come at them in various directions, and even the best cyclists have to be scared in these situations.

Now people may debate about whether or not “Premium Rush” might serve as a recruitment gig for bike messengers, but it also shows how painful it can be when you crash into something, and odds are you will. There’s also a scene during the end credits which shows Levitt’s arm all bloody after he hit the back window of a taxi cab, and that makes up for the lack of a disclaimer.

Levitt has had great success in the last few years with “(500) Days of Summer,” “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” and he is fantastic here as a character named after that coyote who chased the Road Runner endlessly. This role could have been given to some actor who would have annoyed us with their overwhelming ego, but Levitt makes this character likable despite his insane bike-riding habits.

You also have ace character actor Michael Shannon on board as an undeniably dirty cop. It doesn’t matter what movie he’s in because Shannon never disappoints in giving us a great performance. As Bobby Monday, he makes what could have been a mere one-dimensional villain all the more colorful and threatening. We have seen corrupt cops like this one in so many different movies, but Shannon makes him seem more intriguing than what must have originally appeared on the written page.

The rest of the cast includes Dania Ramirez (whom you may remember as AJ’s girlfriend on “The Sopranos”) to the always entertaining Aasif Mandvi, and they succeed in making this movie all the more entertaining to watch. The action is also given an exciting and propulsive score by David Sardy and a beautifully sunny look by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen. Heck, watching this movie makes you very sweaty even if you are viewing it in a theater or in the comfort of your air-conditioned home.

“Premium Rush” is nothing spectacular, but it is fun to watch. It’s a shame it did not do better business at the box office, but Columbia Pictures did kind of screw up its release. Watching it reminds those of us who do not ride bikes anymore how much fun and very dangerous cycling can be. If nothing else, it does make wearing a helmet while riding a bike far more appealing than it ever has been in the past.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Where The Crawdads Sing’ Doesn’t Dig Deep Enough into the Marsh

After watching “Where the Crawdads Sing,” I immediately went out and purchased a copy of Delia Owens’ novel upon which it is based. Judging from the opening narration in which the main character of Catherine “Kya” Clark tells the audience how “marsh is not swamp” but instead is “a space of light where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky,” this cinematic adaptation looked to defy all the perceptions we typically have of such places on Earth. This is further emphasized by her describing how swamp exists within the marsh and is “quiet because decomposition is cellular work,” and how it “knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin.” This dialogue comes straight from Owens’ prose, and it stayed with me throughout the film’s 126-minute running time.

This cinematic adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing” comes to us from Reese Witherspoon who has gushed endlessly about how much she loves the novel, and she produced this film alongside Lauren Neustadter. The screenplay was written by Lucy Alibar who co-wrote “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and it was directed by Olivia Newman who is best known for her Netflix film “First Match.” Clearly, there is a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera here, and the appreciation everyone has for the source material cannot be doubted. Still, while this film held my attention throughout, I Pate’s came out of it thinking, couldn’t the filmmakers have dug into the material even deeper?

We first meet Kya as a young girl who lives with her family in the North Carolina marsh, and it is fun to watch her being embraced by her loving mother. But then we see her dad (played by Garret Dillahunt) is an abusive bastard who treats every member of his family like crap. From there, Kya’s mother and siblings leave their home one by one to where it is just her and dad, and she learns to survive his drunken wrath in more ways than one. But soon he disappears, and Kya is forced to fend for herself and survive on her own to where she copes with loneliness in a way few others do.

Indeed, seeing Kya grow up in the marsh to where we can believe she can more than survive on her own provides this film with its most interesting moments, but it is all surrounded by a courtroom drama which makes the proceedings feel utterly routine and ordinary. As the story begins, the police come upon the body of Chase Andrews (played by Harris Dickinson), a high school quarterback who had been in a relationship with Kya which ended on a bitter and violent note. People in town are quick to label Kya as the key suspect as they have always viewed her as an outsider to where they fear her for all the wrong reasons. It is not long before Kya is arrested and charged with his murder.

Part of my problem with this film is that it treats many of the characters as caricatures instead of fleshed out human beings. More often than not, the filmmakers only touch on the surface of these individuals instead of transcending their nature to present something more unique. While certain characters are given special attention, others are painted in broad strokes to where they could have come out of so many other motion pictures. The period detail is spot on as the film immerses us in the times and tribulations of the 1960’s, but it still feels like we are just watching events unfold instead of living them through Kya and everyone else.

One actor who elevates his material here is the great David Strathairn who co-stars as Kya’s defense attorney, Tom Milton. While the prosecuting attorney looks and acts like a Jake Brigance wannabe, Strathairn transcends his character’s mannerisms and background to give us a performance which feels alive and lived in. Not once does he ever give us a moment which feels false as his character comes out of retirement to defend Kya in her murder trial. At the start, he asks Kya to her that he cannot help her until het gets to know her better. His character becomes key from there to the story as, like him, we want everyone to see Kya as an individual instead of some odd human being who exists in the shadows where few others dare to travel to.

Speaking of Kya, the actress who plays her is Daisy Edgar-Jones, and her performance for me was worth the price of admission. She more than inhabits Kya to where the character never comes across as some female version of Tarzan, but instead one who merely exists in the marsh as it is the only home she has ever known and feels comfortable in. Jones also renders many scenes she appears in with heartbreaking honesty as we watch her discover love for the first time, and later heartbreak which is always devastating, especially for the young.

It is also worth singling out Jojo Regina who plays the younger Kya as she embodies the character at a fragile point in her life. She shows us how lost the young Kya is when she first goes to school and discovers how cruel children can be to someone different from them. More importantly, Regina sets the stage for Kya becoming wholly independent as she digs in the marsh for mussels to sell to the local general store. Watching her, I believe Regina gave Jones so much great stuff to work with.

I also enjoyed the performances of both Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt as Jumpin and Mabel, the kindly African-American couple who own and run the local general store where boats get their gas. They respect and care they have for Kya is strong and shows through their eyes and actions. Plus, Mabel has one of the movie’s best lines as she rightly points out that the Bible says nothing about being careful.

But as for the rest of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” it all feels inescapably routine. Sure, the cinematography by Polly Morgan is gorgeous, the music score by Mychael Danna fits the material perfectly, and it is clear everyone here has great love for the source material. But in the process of being slavish to the novel, they don’t do enough bring everything it to life. I cannot help but believe this adaptation could have been given much more depth as this movie could have stood out in the same way Michael Apted’s “Nell,” which starred Jodie Foster as a similar individual raised away from civilization. While the novel may have given many a unique experience, this movie fails to do the same as it becomes like many we have seen time and time again.

I think it would have been best to focus much more on the trifecta of Kya, her first boyfriend Tate (Taylor John Smith), and her second boyfriend Chase. Where Kya is a child of the wilderness and the marsh, Tate has one foot in the civilized world and another in the wilderness, and Chase himself is a product of the civilized world which has given him a lot of bad ideas about social status and women. These relationships are dealt with, but in a rather shallow way with some acting which is too theatrical for motion pictures.

Heck, I would have liked to have seen more of Dillahunt as Pa as, from what I have read of the novel thus far, there is more to him than being just a drunken bully. Perhaps we could have been given more depth into this character as a result to where we could understand why he acts the way he does even as we rightly despise his actions. Still, the movie decides to keep him at arms’ length. Granted, the main focus is, and absolutely should be, on Kya, but perhaps knowing more about the key people in her life would have made her coming of age adventures all the more enthralling.

If you are a fan of the novel, I think you will have to see how the movie “Where the Crawdads Sings” compares to it. There is a lot to like about it, and again, Jones is simply wonderful in the lead role. But considering how beloved this novel is, I imagine many will come out of it feeling like more could have been done with the material.

For what it’s worth, both the movie and the novel serve as a reminder of how the civilized and uncivilized worlds don’t go by the same laws as survival takes on different forms in each. And remember, unlike animals, human beings are the only species to put their own in cages, behind bars.

* * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Hardcore’ (1979)

Paul Schrader’s 1979 film “Hardcore” is one I have been meaning to watch for years. Many of my film friends have sung its praises, and I have been a big fan of Schrader’s work both as a screenwriter (“Taxi Driver”) and as a director (“First Reformed” and “Patty Hearst” among others). Regardless, this quickly became one of the many films I kept promising myself I would watch but never got around to it. But then one evening, I saw it was playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, and I realized the time had come to finally give it a look. Besides, this might be my only chance to see it on the silver screen.

“Hardcore” opens up on Christmas in Grand Rapids, Michigan to the tune of Susan Raye’s “Precious Memories.” Schrader quickly settles us into the peaceful and family-oriented environment which looks to be filled with church-going people who love and fear God in equal measure. You just might mistake it for the average Norman Rockwell painting which often gave us images that were all too wholesome to be believed. Everything looks to be together on the same page while singing faith-based songs and sharing in traditional ceremonies without question. Of course, it’s scenes like these that make me wonder when the cracks in this atmosphere will begin to show.

The main character of this piece is Jake Van Dorn (played by George C. Scott), a well-to-do businessman with strong religious beliefs. Originally, this part almost went to Warren Beatty, but as great an actor as Beatty, he would have been wrong. Scott is perfectly cast as he has the face of someone with deeply held beliefs to where questioning them could be hazardous to your health. Eventually, you know these beliefs will be tested in the extreme as the title “Hardcore” refers to more than the sexuality on display here.

Jake’s peaceful existence becomes undone when his daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) goes missing while on a church-sponsored trip in California. He enlists the help of the police, but after seeing all the photos on the wall of missing children, some of who still haven’t been found in years, he decides to hire a private investigator named Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) to dig a little deeper. But what Andy finds is something Jake never could have expected nor be the least prepared to deal with.

Watching Jake view a porno film in which his daughter Kristen is having sex with two men is an unnerving scene as Scott portrays a deep shock and grief which illustrates the living nightmare any parent would be thrilled to avoid. While it threatens to contain, as Ralph Garman and Kevin Smith would call it, “exquisite acting,” and the scene has become an infamous meme for many, I am curious as to what depths Scott dug to capture such an unforgettable moment of devastation. Such a scene is impossible to erase from the memory once it is viewed, and it comes to inform the relentlessness and anger he will come to experience up to the movie’s end.

From there, Jake ventures into the seedy underworld of Los Angeles, or the one which existed back in the 1970s. Like “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle, he is “God’s Lonely Man” as he ventures into a place he does not belong. His brother-in-law tells him early on that God is testing him, and it is clearly the case as ventures deeper and deeper into the city’s sleazy subculture where there are an endless number of sex shopkeepers, adult theaters, and massage parlors that do more for their clients than a simple rub down. At one point, he even disguises himself as a pornography producer in an increasingly desperate effort to find his daughter, and I kept wondering if and when he might give in to temptation.

“Hardcore” was Schrader’s second film as a director, following his brilliant debut with “Blue Collar.” As with “Blue Collar,” he had quite the time wrangling his cast. Scott was said to have not gotten along with Schrader, and at one point promised the director he would finish the film only if he vowed never to direct another motion picture ever again. Well, we know Schrader promised Scott just that to get him back on set, but thank God the filmmaker never followed through on his word. This is just as well as we still had other films like “American Gigolo,” “Cat People,” “Light Sleeper” and “Affliction” to look forward to.

Indeed, this is a film that could have been upstaged by its behind-the-scenes drama which, in addition to Scott’s behavior, included an ending forced on Schrader by the studio. Indeed, the ending is “Hardcore’s” biggest flaw as it doesn’t jibe well with all which came before it, and it feels lazily staged with a shootout that feels tacked on above all else. It is thanks to Scott’s performance in the final moments that I am willing to forgive the conclusion as he keeps it from ringing completely hollow.

Still, I think “Hardcore” is a triumph for Schrader as it allows him to dig deep into themes he has explored in his many works such as the conflict between man and immorality. Moreover, there is authenticity on display here which would be hard to find today as Schrader managed to gain access to real-life sex houses and adult theaters to where there is no doubt we are dealing with the real thing and not just some cheap set. Certain sticky stains on the windows make this abundantly clear by the way.

Looking at the credits, Schrader had quite the crew to work with. The film was executive produced by John Milius who remains one of the best screenwriters ever, the score was by Jack Nitzsche who helps add even more of a lurid feeling to the sights Jake is forced to take in, and the cinematography was by Michael Chapman who performed visual wonders on both “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” Seriously, the color palette Chapman uses here aids the story considerably, and I cannot help but believe it greatly influenced the later works of Gaspar Noe and Benoit Debie.

I enjoyed Peter Boyle’s performance as private detective Andy Mast as he makes this character look all too comfortable in a city that thrives on decadence than what might appear on the surface. Even as Andy gives in to his baser needs and desires, he knows how the story is going to end and makes very few apologies for who he is. While the ending feels a bit too similar to the one from “Chinatown,” Boyle makes it work as his dialogue rings very true in a cynical and sad way.

But another performance worth singling out here is Season Hubley’s as Niki, a prostitute and part-time adult actress who aids Jake in his search. The scenes she has with Scott represent the best “Hardcore” has to offer as their dialogue regarding both sex and religion illustrates their differences and similarities in ways only Schrader could have pulled off. She fully inhabits this character to where I never doubted how much of a survivor Niki was and will continue to long after the end credits have finished.

Like William Friedkin’s “Cruising,” “Hardcore” is a journey into a subculture that no longer exists in today’s world. These days, it is much easier to gain access to pornography through the internet, and it makes me wonder how Jake would deal with a similar situation in today’s world. Things would be a bit easier to trace, and that’s even though some lost children might forever stay lost (please feel free to prove me wrong on this). As devoutly religious as Jake is, I imagine in a time where the world wide web and cell phones control our lives more than ever, he would most likely be more isolated and closed off from those around him than ever before.

“Hardcore” is indeed classic Paul Schrader even with its inescapable flaws, and I have no doubt “8MM,” the 1999 film directed by the late Joel Schumacher and written by Andrew Kevin Walker, would not have existed without it. “8MM” also pales in comparison to it by the way. I look at movies like these and wonder why studios won’t leave the filmmakers alone in making them. You know how dark the material was when you started funding the project, right? So why insult everyone’s intelligence by trying to make things a little less dark?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Morbius’ Isn’t Much of a Blood-Sucker

All actors deserve a second chance at a comic book/superhero movie franchise, don’t they? Ryan Reynolds may have painfully endured a dismal critical and commercial defeat with “The Green Lantern,” but he shot to soaring heights with “Deadpool.” Chris Evans suffered through those first two “Fantastic Four” films, and then he gave us the best Steve Rogers we could ever have with the “Captain America” trilogy. So surely Oscar winner Jared Leto is entitled to a second wind after his disastrous performance in the infinitely disappointing “Suicide Squad,” right?

Well, while Leto may fare a little better playing the brilliant but physically disabled scientist Dr. Michael Morbius in the Marvel/Columbia Pictures film “Morbius,” it quickly proves to be a stunning bore filled with too many stone-faced performances, pathetic CGI effects that belong in a 1990’s motion picture instead of this one, and a story which fails to dig deeper into the characters’ psyches to give us something more compelling. Instead, we get a comic book/superhero movie that plays it way too safe and seems to have borrowed far too many storylines and lines of dialogue from superior films of its genre. And after “The Batman,” I am now just far too sick and tired of watching bats flying all over the silver screen.

Like many scientists in your average cinematic event, Michael is looking to cure himself of a rare blood disease that has left him physically hobbled, and he looks to share this cure with his best friend, Milo/Lucien (Matt Smith), who has only so much time left to live. To gain ingredients for his brand of medicine, Michael gathers up a bunch of bats which he puts into a glass cage for use at his disposal. But then the time comes when he decides to try his cure on himself because, you know, why risk anyone else’s life? But despite the fact he is a Nobel Prize-winning physician who is extraordinarily bright and has prepared for every possible reaction to the chemicals he has been working with, it all goes horribly awry and turns him into a monster. Otherwise, you know, we wouldn’t have a movie. And, as with Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man,” he gets a nice set of abs in the process, showing the amount of time the actor spent in the gym.

With this, Michael now has a form of transgenic vampirism which has given him superhuman abilities but none of the weaknesses, meaning he can walk in the sunlight without turning into a burnt shish kabob. When Milo wants to try the cure on himself, Michael refuses to give it to him because he sees it as a curse and does not want anyone else to end up in his predicament. But it’s too late because Milo already got a hold of the serum and somehow managed to administer it to himself. This left me thinking; is Milo a doctor? How did he know how to inject it? Moreover, when did he find the time to inject it and develop his own superhuman powers so quickly? Well, when you want to defeat the Grim Reaper at his own game…

“Morbius” does pose some interesting questions for the viewer such as the moral choices Michael faces as he wonders how long he can remain relativity sane before he is forced to drink human blood, and if he will be forced to bite the necks of innocent civilians in the process. The screenplay by Matt Sazama and Bruce Sharpless, however, is hollow at its core and becomes more concerned with filling the screen full of fights between Michael and Milo, all of which are rendered with subpar CGI effects, instead of giving this material any kind of depth. As a result, the whole movie quickly feels like a lost opportunity which makes “Blade: Trinity” seem more energetic in comparison.

As things went on, there were many scenes that took me out of the action as they reminded me of other movies which are far better than this one. The scene where Michael mingles with the bats feels like a steal from “Batman Begins” when Bruce Wayne, as an adult, rises amongst the winged creatures to confront his own childhood fears. Then there’s the scene where Michael tells a pair of FBI agents, “You don’t want to see me when I’m hungry.” Can anyone say “The Incredible Hulk?” And let us not forget the doctor’s storage room which is filled with both human blood and artificial blood which he created. We all know human blood is red, and the artificial blood looks blue. Now it has not been long since “The Matrix Resurrections” came out, and the whole red pill, blue bill thing has forever been burned into our collective consciousness. We know Michael is more eager to drink the blue blood, but sooner or later, we know he will have to go with the red stuff, and not just to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Another really big problem with “Morbius” comes down to how wooden everyone looks here. Leto looks to be deep into his character, but he shows little in the way of emotion, and he has little to no chemistry with Adria Arjona who plays his lover and confident Dr. Martine Bancroft. As for the others, Tyrese Gibson’s character of Simon Stroud has a face that looks etched in stone, Al Madrigal makes FBI agent Alberto Rodriguez look and sound like a John Munch wannabe whose jokes never generate much in the way of laughs, and Jared Harris is all but wasted in a supporting role as all he does is look overly concerned about everything and anything.

If there is any actor who deserves to come out of “Morbius” with any dignity, it’s Matt Smith. Right from the start, the former “Dr. Who” actor revels in portraying such a wonderfully crazed villain as no one is about to hold him back in his performance. Just when I thought I was going to pass out from boredom, Smith succeeded in keeping me awake as his energy was something everyone else onscreen could have drawn on. The only other actor who gave this material as much enthusiasm was Michael Keaton, and he only appears in a pair of post-credit scenes as his “Spider-Man: Homecoming” character of Adrian Toomes/Vulture. Am I giving anything away? No, trust me, I’m not.

When “Morbius” finally reaches its conclusion, the ending seemed very abrupt to where I could not help but say out loud, “That’s it?!” Clearly Columbia Pictures and Sony hope to continue the adventures of this vampire doctor as they desperately cling onto everything Spider-Man-related instead of letting Marvel Studios take everything over. Despite the massive success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the Spider-Verse, as handled by Sony, continues to experience more bumps and bruises than anyone would like. Perhaps they should consider letting Marvel handle things from here, but considering the amount of money involved, that is clearly never going to happen.

At the end of the day, “Morbius” only succeeds in becoming one of the blandest comic book/superhero movies ever made. Seriously, it makes “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” look like a cinematic masterpiece in comparison. To quote Count Dooku from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” surely you can do better!

* out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ is Fantastic Entertainment and One of MCU’s Best

Okay, why beat around the bush. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is far and away one of the very best “Spider-Man” movies ever made. It stands proudly alongside my other favorites (“Spider-Man 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) as it gives audiences quite a ride which proves to be as emotional as it is exciting. It also cements the fact that Tom Holland is the best actor to inhabit this iconic comic book/superhero thus far, and it even redeems the weakest Spider-Man movies (“Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) to where I think I can get away with saying all is forgiven. Yes, it really is that good.

When we last saw our friendly neighborhood human bitten by a spider, Mysterio had framed him for his murder which was gleefully exploited by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, because casting anyone else in this role would be uncivilized) on his Alex Jones-like broadcast. Even worse, the world now knows Spider-Man is really Peter Parker which makes his life a social media nightmare as people are quick to look at the headlines instead of reading the article or looking beneath the surface of things to get to the truth. Of course, even if the truth is revealed, there would still be many people around the world quick to believe the fiction, especially if it fits in with their deluded mindset.

In desperation, Peter seeks out Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to use the mystical arts to wipe out everyone’s memory of him being Spider-Man. Unfortunately, Strange’s spells get all messed up when Peter suddenly remembers he doesn’t want Michelle “MJ” Jones-Watson (Zendaya), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) or his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to forget about him or his alter-ego. As a result, the multiverse cracks open and many of Spidey’s devious enemies are brought into the world this particular Peter Parker exists in to do away with him. It’s up to Peter to, as Doctor Strange says, “Scooby Doo this shit.”

It is fantastic to see some of the best Spider-Man villains back on the silver screen here. I was especially thrilled to see Alfred Molina return as Doctor Otto Octavius as he is still the most memorable nemesis in all of these films. Molina does wonderful work once again as he plumbs the depths of his character to find the humanity within a man who has been driven to madness. This is an actor who never fails us.

The same goes with the always reliable Willem Dafoe who returns as Norman Osborne/Green Goblin. This time, the Green Goblin gets an upgrade to where Dafoe no longer has to bother with the cheap-looking mask he was forced to wear back in 2002 (he must have enjoyed smashing it to pieces). More importantly, he also makes this iconic comic book villain a fascinating study in good and bad, and the bad side of Osborne threatens to far more devious than anyone could have expected.

And in the other corner, we have the return of villains from the worst “Spider-Man” movies: Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). Church was forced to act in a sequel which already had too much going on and contained some truly underwhelming special effects. The same thing happened to Foxx in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” but his performance also proved to be underwhelming as he was unable to make Electro a menacing antagonist. But in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” both actors are clearly having way more fun this time around as their characters fit into the narrative nicely, and their appearances are upgraded to excellent effect. This is especially the case with Foxx who is no longer this blue-looking guy who looked like he belonged more in “Avatar” than a “Spider-Man” flick, and he gets to take Electro in some new directions which makes his performance much more memorable this time around.

As with any Marvel Cinematic Universe offering, there are many cameos from other comic book characters and superheroes throughout, but I will not spoil any of them for you here. Granted, many other websites and outlets have been digging deep into all the surprises and easter eggs just one day after this sequel opened, and I should not be surprised by this, but you deserve to discover these surprises yourself. There’s a number of good reasons why I did not post a spoiler warning at the top of this article.

The best “Spider-Man” movies deal brilliantly with how Peter Parker is just a regular kid who accidentally inherits incredible superpowers which excite him, and who eventually comes to see how with great power comes great responsibilities. Granted, someone usually has to say these words to him, but he does soon realize the magnitude of his actions and his place in the world at large.

Like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield before him, Tom Holland fully understands the humanity of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and the actor takes us on quite a journey as Peter goes from being a bright young kid whose world has been turned upside down to a man who is tested in ways he does not expect. Tragedy comes to define his life and takes him down a path of no turning back, but Holland, with his eyes and body, shows us a hero who can and will rise above hatred to take on a new adventure which will come his way eventually. Holland is phenomenal here.

I also liked how “No Way Home” deals with its themes such as the following: Can evil be turned to good? Can bad ways and tragic actions ever be redeemed? Is absolute power such an aphrodisiac to where giving it up really does seem insane? Is J. Jonah Jameson ever going to get sued for his program of shameless propaganda? And, perhaps most importantly, how much must a hero sacrifice in order to save the world? I really loved how director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers deal with these themes, even if some get more attention than others.

Some comic book/superhero movies go in and out of me quite easily to where there is only so much worth remembering about them. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” however, stayed with me long after the end credits and post credit sequences were done. Like “No Time to Die,” this 2021 motion picture packs quite an emotional wallop as Peter Parker and his iconic alter-ego remains as endearing and heroic as ever. This is one of best “Spider-Man” movies ever, and one of my favorite films of this past year. I was expecting a good movie as I walked into the theater, but I had no idea it was going to be this good.

I also have to hand it to Marvel as they know how to finish a trilogy. The third movie in a franchise can often prove to be disastrous to where it sullies everything which came before it, but that’s not the case here. Now if they can just do a better job with the second film in a trilogy, everything would be great. Seriously, does anyone remember anything about “Thor: The Lost World?” I don’t.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ – A Worthy Installment

The “Ghostbusters” franchise is a lot like the “Predator” franchise in that filmmakers take them in all sorts of directions in the hopes of reintroducing classic characters to a new generation. When it came to “Ghostbusters II” and “Predator II,” neither could match the power or cultural zeitgeist of the original, and we were reminded of how you cannot catch lightning in a bottle twice. A third “Ghostbusters” has been lingering in development hell for decades now, and the 2016 reboot looked like the best we could hope for. Then again, despite a terrific cast, the reboot was a financial failure. After that, I had to wonder, now who we gonna call?

Well, after many years and the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed its release, we now have “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” which was directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, the son of “Ghostbusters” (1984) director Ivan Reitman. What results threatens to be a mixed bag as this sequel relies a bit too much on fan service and treads through familiar territory, but if you can get past that, it still proves to be wonderfully entertaining and has a lot to say about the importance of family.

Thirty years after the events of “Ghostbusters II,” we are introduced to Callie (Carrie Coon), a single mother of two kids, the extremely bright but socially awkward Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and the restless and cellphone-addicted Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). This family is struggling financially and emotionally, and only their infinite sarcasm can help them get through the day. And just when they find themselves evicted from their meager apartment, Callie comes to discover her father, whom she has been estranged from for years, has recently died, and she has now inherited his dilapidated farmhouse where he appeared to be farming nothing other than dirt.

The farmhouse is located in Summerville, Oklahoma, a town which looks to be located out in the middle of nowhere. While the land stretches as far as the eye can see, there apparently is very little going on, and it reminds me of what David Ratray, who played Buzz McCallister in “Home Alone,” once said:

“We live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period.”

But soon after this family arrives in Summerville, strange things begin happening which cannot be seen as anything other than terrifyingly supernatural.

I have to say I really admired how “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” reminds you of how things can be forgotten after so many years. Those who watched the original “Ghostbusters” back when it came out in 1984 have watched it many times since as it was that good and so hilarious. But as time goes on, you have to be reminded of how easy it is for people to forget about the past, or that some have not seen nor remember certain events because, well, they weren’t born yet. Phoebe has to remind others of this, and it brings back memories me of when I ask certain individuals, “You’ve never seen a ‘Star Wars’ movie?!”

Jason Reitman has stated this film is about family above all else, and it definitely shows. The family of Callie, Phoebe and Trevor have been through more than the average family should ever have to experience, but then again, maybe this is common for what’s left of the middle class. While the Spenglers may be stuck in a realm of bitterness and a desperation to understand why they are at where they are. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” implies while some families might be better off with certain members, others deserve an explanation. When it comes to explanations, the one this family gets helps to absolve a lot of bad feelings as living in a place of bitterness is a very unattractive quality in a human being.

When it comes to the screenplay, Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan have provided the cast with a lot of inspired dialogue as these two do not want them to be saddled with any of the clunky kind which ends up in every other motion picture. Seriously, the characters more often than not talk like real people here, and for me this is such a relief.

The cast all around is perfectly chosen. Carrie Coon, who may be best remembered for playing Ben Affleck’s sister in “Gone Girl,” is sublime as Callie. Right from the start, she makes this single mother a force to be reckoned with even as she matches her children’s sarcasm word for word.

Perhaps my favorite piece of casting here is Mckenna Grace who plays Phoebe as she takes this Wesley Crusher-like character and makes her ever so appealing. When I was a kid, characters like Phoebe were presented in movies as the kind I should avoid being like, but watching Grace here reminds me of how being incredibly intelligent but socially awkward can really pay off later in life. She really invites you to follow Phoebe as she becomes the big hero of the show here.

When it comes to Finn Wolfhard, I imagine many will look at his performance as a regurgitation of his work from “Stranger Things,” but such an accusation is not altogether fair. As Trevor, he portrays the normal teenager who is quick to become enamored of the opposite sex once he arrives in Summerville. What results is something which may feel similar to the infinitely popular Netflix series, but this young actor clearly knows how to distinguish Trevor Spengler from Mike Wheeler just as he did with Richie Tozier from the latter in the recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”

And then there is Rudd, Paul Rudd. The actor, recently named as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (someday it will be me), is a blast as science teacher Gary Grooberson. Whether he is slobbering over all the Ghostbusters equipment or showing R-rated movies to a group of disaffected kids (kudos to him for selecting “Cujo” by the way), we are quickly reminded of how we can never go wrong with this guy. As much as I want to say “damn you,” the man never ceases to be an entertaining presence.

Now when it comes to the nostalgia featured here, it does come on fairly heavy, but it doesn’t capsize the film. Unlike sequels such as “Blues Brothers 2000” which was so jam-packed with so many familiar characters and scenes to where the déjà vu made me want to turn it off and watch the original instead, this one treads the line carefully to give us something a bit different even as it pays homage to the 1984 original.

Having said that, part of me wishes “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was bit more original and did not simply re-employ old villains. If this franchise is to continue beyond this installment, and several post-credit scenes indicate it will, the filmmakers should be willing to take new chances in the future. Even Rob Simonsen’s music score sounds more like a simple adaptation of Elmer Bernstein’s to where it is hard to spot any new themes. It is a bit like when J.J. Abrams brought back Emperor Palpatine for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker;” he’s a great villain and the kind you love to sneer at, but he failed once before and we know he will again, you know?

Still, I very much enjoyed this sequel as it provides audiences with terrific characters who are inhabited by a very talented cast, and the effects are excellent throughout. And yes, there are great surprises to be found here, and I am not about to spoil them for you even if others have already.

But most importantly, this is a film with a lot of heart, and this should be completely clear during its last act. The final scene shows how the deeply embittered can be healed through love and understanding, and that’s whether or not you have a proton pack or ghost trap available. As the end credits came up, it was real treat to hear Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song once again. Where it once was annoying as hell, now it has been found again as “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” finally gives this franchise a truly worthy installment.

* * * out of * * * *

‘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 * * * *