‘A Christmas Story’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

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

If it’s Christmas time, you know it means twenty-four hours of “A Christmas Story” from director Bob Clark on TBS and TNT.  It has become a holiday tradition for many people and a good background distraction for families as they gather to open presents, eat and spend time together. As with any Christmas film which is hugely popular, people are known to quote the lines from this one as they hold it near and dear to their hearts.  However, how does “A Christmas Story” hold up in 2022?

A Christmas Story” is set in Northern Indiana and follows young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a nine-year-old kid who wants one thing for Christmas—a Red Ryder BB Gun.  However, he is told by his mother, his teacher and even a mall Santa that he will shoot his eye out.  This does not stop him from pulling out all the stops to get it though, including leaving behind little hints for his mother.  Ralphie also has a peculiar little brother named Randy who likes to play with his food and hide in tiny spaces.  He’s also joined by his overworked mother (Melinda Dillon) and cranky father (Darren McGavin).

The film is told from Ralphie POV as an adult as he looks back on this particular Christmas.  We get to see him at school as he’s trying to focus on his classes while also pining over the Red Ryder BB gun. He’s also dealing with the local school bully named Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) who terrorizes Ralphie and his friends Flick and Schwartz, played by Scott Schwartz and R.D. Robb.  They get into the usual tomfoolery at school such as Flick getting his tongue stuck to a post outside school, which causes him to need medical attention.

Ralphie’s father is also obsessed with a leg lamp which he sees as a major award, even though it brings his wife a great deal of shame and embarrassment.  The father is also dealing with being hounded by the dogs next door.  There is a lot going on in Ralphie’s life, but one thing remains the same—he wants the Red Ryder BB gun.  He is counting down the days until Christmas, and he is hoping he will find it under the tree, no matter what it takes.  I think we can all relate to that period of time in our lives as a child hoping for that special present as if it were the most important thing in the world.

I do feel though that “A Christmas Story” is overrated simply because of the fact it’s been on TNT and TBS since 1997. Sometimes if an audience sees something enough, they tend to fall in love with it based on repetition or the memories it conjures up for them. It is not a bad movie by any means.  It is based on “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd which, according to my research, featured semi-fictional tidbits. I just don’t think there is a story or a plot here.  It is filled with movie moments and memorable lines which have stayed with people throughout the years. My favorite Christmas movie of all time is “It’s a Wonderful Life” with “Elf” coming in at number two, which I recently reviewed.

There is humor to be found here, and I understand what they were trying to go for with the story and the theme.  I just didn’t feel like it was enough to make a full-length film.  Even though it’s only 93 minutes, there are times where the film drags and feels a little insignificant. I didn’t hate the film nor did I love it either.  It’s watchable, but there is nothing which really stands out to me.  The film doesn’t have an “it factor” like the other two Christmas movies I mentioned.  It’s just mindless silliness, which is fine, but it doesn’t make for a great movie.  It makes for an average movie.

* * ½ out of * * * *

4K/Blu-ray Info: “A Christmas Story” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment that also comes with a digital copy of the film.  It is rated PG and runs at 93 minutes.

4K Info:  They have done a masterful job of cleaning up this picture. I’ve seen it many times over the years in bits and pieces on TV, but this is, far and away, the best it has ever looked.  There is no grain whatsoever on the picture.  It is crystal clear, and the HDR gives the film a new life.

Audio Info: The audio formats are DTS-HD MA: English 2.0 Mono and Dolby Digital: English and French. Subtitles are included in English, Spanish, and French. The audio has also never sounded better on 4K.  You can hear everything perfectly, and the sound is consistent throughout the film.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary by Bob Clark and Peter Billingsley

Christmas in Ohio: A Christmas Story House

Another Christmas Story

Daisy Red Ryder: A History

Get a Leg Up

“Flash Gordon” Deleted Script Pages

The Leg Lamp Spot

Jean Shepherd Original Radio Reading

Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid (HD, 38:07)

Flick’s Tongue

Theatrical Trailer

Should You Buy It?

If we are strictly talking about the audio and video of this 4K release of “A Christmas Story,” this is a must own if you are a fan of the film.  Having seen it on TV at many Christmas parties and also having watched the Blu-ray in the past, this is an incredible transfer on 4K.  The film looks great. Keep in mind, the filmmakers have set this story in the 1940’s, even though it was released in 1983. It looks out of this world on 4K.  I was really impressed with the audio and video here and every little detail that was popping up on screen. I give the audio and video four stars on this release.  You get the special features that were on the Blu-ray in the past, which is expected.  If you are a fan of the film, you NEED to own it on 4K, there is no question about it.  If you have grown tired of the film or don’t find it funny (I fall into the latter category), you can pass on it.  However, I have a feeling this is going to be a hot-seller for fans of Christmas movies. It just doesn’t work for me.

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

‘Poltergeist’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

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

Poltergeist” is a film I haven’t watched in probably close to sixteen years.  The last time I remember watching it was when I was preparing to interview the late Zelda Rubinstein for the DVD release of the film back in the day.  Upon revisiting “Poltergeist,” I found it to be a mixed bag.  There are certain aspects which feature solid special effects, some good scares, and intense moments of horror.  There are also long-drawn-out scenes that drag the film down at other points.  The film also feels very dated in many ways. I had trouble deciding my feelings on the film even after watching and sitting with it for a few hours.

Poltergeist” introduces the audience to your average suburban husband and wife played by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. They are doing their best to raise their children: Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Dana (Dominique Dunne). Carol Ann is the mischievous youngest child of the bunch, Robbie is the scared middle child, and Dana is the sixteen-year-old teenager with a bit of sass to her. Their world is turned upside down when strange and bizarre things start happening in their home.  They find that the furniture is moving all around the house, and the house itself seems to have a mind of its own.  When they lose their youngest, Carol Ann, to the TV, they start to become incredibly concerned about their living situation.

One of the positive aspects of “Poltergeist” is the fact that the family can’t just leave the house because their daughter is inside of it somewhere.  In many haunted house films, it’s frustrating to watch as a viewer because you just want to scream, “Leave the house already! Get out of there!” It’s not that easy this time.  They need to stay in the house in order to save their child.  This is causing sleepless nights and a tremendous amount of anxiety for the parents. Dana ends up staying with a friend to get away from the chaos of the home while Robbie stays with his grandmother. Steve and Diane are determined to get to the bottom of this.

This is also where the film falls off the rails a little bit. They end up bringing in some experts to help them with this issue, as they want to find out if it’s a simple haunting or a poltergeist intrusion. All of this is new to them, and they are learning as they go along. They end up bringing in a spiritual medium, played by Zelda Rubinstein, in the hopes of finally getting to the bottom of this.  She is attempting to help Steve and Diane communicate with their youngest daughter and figure out a way to get her back to them safe and sound.  However, this is going to be much easier said than done because of all of the obstacles and roadblocks that are in their way.  There is also a hidden secret that explains why Carol Ann says “they’re here” when she looks at the TV.

Overall, there is a good movie in here somewhere dying to come out. “Poltergeist” maybe needed a spiritual medium of its own to get the most out of its production.  It’s directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg.  Many have stated Spielberg was responsible for directing most of the film and, in turn, should have been labeled a co-director on the project at the very least. It has been a Hollywood inside story for a while, but it does feel like a movie in search of a tone and direction.  The “ghost story” aspects are too convoluted at times, which is when it starts to feel a bit tedious and tiresome to watch. The straight-up horror aspects are the ones which really work and are incredibly effective. There are some set pieces and scenes which were really ahead of its time and truly terrifying. Sadly, those scenes are few and far in between.

“Poltergeist” is also bogged down by its PG rating.  It feels like a crowd-pleasing PG horror movie instead of a horror thrill-ride.  Once again, this feels like a film at odds with itself.  The performances by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are really, really good.  They show just the right amount of anguish and distress as the parents.  The younger actors are not given a whole lot to do here, which is a shame, because young children in peril, when done right and with no agenda, can also add to the terror. Overall, this film was a mixed bag for me, so I can’t quite recommend it, even though I truly enjoyed certain scenes, the performances, and the special effects.

* * ½ out of * * * *

4K/Blu-ray Info: “Poltergeist” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It is rated PG and has a running time of 114 minutes. It also comes with a digital copy of the film.

Video Info: The 4K HDR transfer of the film looks incredible. This film was released in 1982, and it looks better than ever here on 4K.  Warner Brothers Home Entertainment has really stepped up their game with their 4K releases from their catalogue of films. The vivid and bright colors are really popping here while the dark and gloomy scenes are done just right.  There is a warning for this film if you are susceptible to epilepsy or have trouble with photosensitivity, so keep that in mind if you are going to buy this film or watch it.

Audio Info: The film comes with two audio tracks in English: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and 2.0 along with Dolby Digital: French and Spanish to go along with it.  Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.  The audio is really taken up a notch when it comes to the more intense horror scenes.  It really enhances the strength of the scenes.

Special Features:

“They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists Pt. 1- Science of the Spirits”: 15:30

“They Are Here: The Real World of Poltergeists Pt. 2- Communing with the Dead”: 15:31

“The Making of Poltergeist”: 7:15

Trailer: 2:25

Should You Buy It?

As per usual, these special features have been previously released on the Blu-ray of the film.  All in all, they are decent enough special features if you enjoyed the film.  The more I thought about this film, the more I realized I was trying to talk myself into liking it.  I didn’t hate it and it’s not a bad movie.  It’s simply OK.  It could have been a lot better considering the actors and the director and producer behind it.  This should have been a great film and a horror classic.  It’s overrated in many ways.  It’s not a film that is going to have great repeat value or one that I think many will come back to time and time again.  I can’t recommend that you purchase this film, even though I thought I was going to enjoy it quite a bit.  It’s a disappointment, as the potential is there, and it’s shown in certain scenes and with the performances.  It’s just not consistent enough throughout the film. The beginning and the end of the film are really good, but the middle is a mess and quite boring at times.  The 4K of the film is impressive and a major upgrade.  If you are a fan of the movie, you will enjoy the 4K transfer.  If you aren’t a fan of the film or haven’t seen it before, I don’t think you need to spend your money on this 4K.

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

‘Dog’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

There is nothing about “Dog” that will offend your cinematic senses, nor is there anything in the film which will reinvent the wheel.  This is a simple movie with a simple concept.  For a lot of filmgoers, they probably love the idea of a dog movie starring Channing Tatum, who also co-directed the film with its screenwriter, Reid Carolin.  For some people, they are fine with a film that just leaves them feeling happy and does not require a lot of thought behind it.  They simply kick back their feet and enjoy themselves.  At times, I believe film can be a great form of escapism when done right.  In the case of “Dog,” there are individual moments that worked in the film, but as a whole, it’s missing a lot of key ingredients.

“Dog” follows Jackson Briggs (Channing Tatum), a former U.S. Army Ranger, who is having a tough time adjusting to regular life.  He has brain injuries and PTSD.  When the film opens, he’s making sandwiches at a sandwich shop, which is clearly not the best use of his skills.  Because of this, he’s eager to do something that will challenge and excite him. He wants to be put on the rotation for Pakistan, but there are major concerns about his health and if he will be able to handle it. He assures them he is fine, but it is clear he’s struggling.

This image released by MGM shows Channing Tatum in a scene from “Dog.” (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures via AP)

When one of his former squad members is killed in a car accident, he is given the task of driving Lulu, a Belgian Malinois military dog, to Arizona for the funeral.  If he does this successfully, they will put in a good word for Briggs for a future tour. After the funeral, Lulu, because of its violent nature, will have to be put down. From here, the film turns into a road trip movie with Briggs and Lulu.  The dog causes a lot of headaches for him, especially when he’s trying to have sex. There is also a comical run-in with a psychic and her paranoid husband, played by former professional wrestler Kevin Nash.  It was great to see Nash on the big screen once again.  There is also a cameo by comedian Bill Burr.

There are other encounters along the way for both Briggs and Lulu. Some of them are successful and some of them are unsuccessful.  Some of them are funny, and some of them are what you would expect in a road trip movie featuring Tatum and a dog.  I imagine that was a big selling point for the film.  Considering the low budget for the film and its final box office numbers, it was a low-risk, high reward project for the studio.  From an artistic standpoint, the film has real issues with its pacing.  It’s very slow-moving and tedious to sit through at times, even though it’s 101 minutes. Tatum is a fine actor, but he’s not the kind of actor who is going to keep my interest for an entire film as the lead.  Even though I love animals, the same is true of the dog.

This is a feel-good flick with a lackluster story.  It’s not a bad movie.  It’s average, run-of-the-mill, and forgettable.  After it was over with, there wasn’t anything from the film that really stayed with me.  Considering its subject material (the impact and healing powers of animals and the real struggles the military deals with from a mental health perspective), they could have done a lot more here.  Instead, they played it safe and easy with a formulaic film that needed a little more bite to it, no pun intended. There are some laughs to be had here, especially with some of the cast members I mentioned, but they are few and far between.  I’m sure a lot of families and Tatum fans will enjoy this film. It didn’t do it for me, however.

* * out of * * * *

Blu-ray Info: “Dog” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray and DVD Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, which also comes with a digital copy of the film. It is rated PG-13 for language, thematic elements, drug content, and some suggestive material.  It has a running time of 101 minutes.

Video/Audio Info:  The film comes on 1080p High Definition with two audio tracks: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Special Features:

“Dog” Trailer

Should You Buy It?

I can’t think of any reason to buy this film unless you are part of the Channing Tatum fan club.  The film has its heart in the right place, so I can’t fault it for that.  It just doesn’t want to try to break out of its formula.  The film follows all of the familiar beats one would expect in a film like this, and it ends exactly how you would expect it to end.  It follows the formula from A to Z.  It does not take any chances or have any surprises, whatsoever.  I don’t even think it’s worth a Redbox rental.  It’s a film you can completely pass on, and you will be just fine. The Blu-ray does not come with any special features, which is a bummer.  It would have been nice to see how Tatum worked with the dog and some of the challenges it presented for the actor. I feel like the Grinch giving this film a bad review, but its screenplay is just lazy and the pacing is really rough.  I’d pass on this one altogether.

**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.

‘Singin’ in the Rain’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

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

Even though “Singin’ in the Rain” is celebrating its 70th anniversary with this 4K release, in my 36 years on this planet, I have yet to see it until now. I was familiar with a few of the songs from the film, as they are part of cinema history, but I never sat down to view it from start to finish.  It’s better late than never!  That is the beauty of film: even if you think you have seen all of the classics out there, there is always one that slips through the cracks from time-to-time.  “Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the best 4K releases of this year so far with its vivid colors, lifelike images, and crystal-clear picture.  It is truly a treat to enjoy.

The film stars Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, a Hollywood stuntman and hoofer.  He is quite popular in silent films and lives by the motto, “Dignity. Always dignity.”  It’s appropriate for his performance in this film, as it’s dignified and classy.  You can’t keep your eyes off him whether he is dancing, singing, or acting.  He has the “it” factor on screen in this film. He was also the co-director on the film along with Stanley Donen. Don’s leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) is the complete opposite of him as she’s superficial, selfish and rude throughout their time together.  Monumental Pictures, the studio behind Lockwood and Lamont, tries to put out this image of the two of them together as a happy couple in order to better increase the gate on their films together.

Don, on the other hand, sees right through Lina and tries to distance himself from her as much as possible. Don’s best friend is Cosmo Brown, played brilliantly by Donald O’Connor. He’s always there to listen, come up with ideas for Don and support him.  He understands why Don has to get as far away as possible from Lina at times.  It causes him to jump into the car of Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a stage actress who doesn’t think too highly of the movies Don Lockwood is putting out there.  She is there to tell him the truth about exactly what she thinks of him, which opens up Don’s eyes, as he’s used to people telling him how great he is all the time. He sees she is talented and smart, and he quickly takes a liking to her.

With the success of “The Jazz Singer,” talking pictures are becoming more and more popular in Hollywood.  This puts Lamont and Lockwood in a position where they have to learn a new way of doing things. Don is a natural and is also willing to put in the work to adapt to the new way of Hollywood.  Lina, on the other hand, has a voice which is rough on the ears.  However, people are used to seeing the two of them in films together.  Because of this, Cosmo comes up with the idea of dubbing over Lina’s lines with Kathy’s voice in an upcoming musical.  This idea is spawned after the public laughs at a screening when they hear Lina’s voice and mistakes throughout one of their films.

Kathy and Don start to become closer and closer, which does not make Lina happy at all.  She is still unwilling to see her flaws or work on her craft to get better.  Kathy, on the other hand, is immensely skilled and talented.  I must admit I am not the biggest fan of musicals as it’s not one of my favorite genres.  The beauty of “Singin’ in the Rain” and why it’s a classic is the fact they know when to have music and dancing, but also know when to focus on the actors and give them the space they need to act and develop their characters.  When the musical numbers hit, they are out of this world.  The songs are memorable, and they will stay in your head after the film is over.  That is huge in a musical.

The dancing is also top-notch and terrific. There are certain scenes where they keep the camera on the actors dancing, and my eyes were glued to their movements and the poetry in which they were moving.  It was truly something to behold.  The amount of work, preparation, and time it took to pull this off is why people are still interested in watching this movie 70 years later.  It holds up incredibly well.  I’ve always been a fan of old-Hollywood.  The 50’s created some of the most iconic movies, and “Singin’ in the Rain” is up there.  I’m just disappointed it took me this long to check it out.  Now, I want to watch it again and again.

For me, the two stand-outs in the film are Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.  Kelly has an effortless charm and is so darn likable.  He’s the perfect actor for this role.  Reynolds is elegant and pure class in her role.  As an audience member, I was really rooting for them to end up together. Of course, the “Singin’ in the Rain” moment is one even I was familiar with, even though I hadn’t seen the film.  It’s a gorgeous scene to watch and it just put a big smile on my face.  This film has it all: humor, romance, heart, love and great, great music. People will still be talking about “Singin’ in the Rain” 70 years from now.

* * * * out of * * * *

4K Info: “Singin’ in the Rain” is released on a two-disc combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 103 minutes and is rated G.  It comes with the 4K, Blu-ray and a digital code as well.

4K/Blu-ray Info: The film is released in 2160p High Definition, and it’s leading the way as one of the best 4K releases of 2022.  The film might be 70-years-old, but it looks incredible. With high dynamic range, you see every color come to life on screen.  This is a visual feast for the eyes.  As mentioned earlier, this film was made for 4K.  It is a huge improvement over the previous releases.

The Blu-ray comes in 1080p High Definition. The 4K comes with the following audio formats: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, English Mono, Dolby Digital: French and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French and Spanish. For the Blu-ray, it comes on DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish. The subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Commentary by Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Kathleen Freeman, Stanley Donen, Betty Camden, Adolph Green, Baz Lurhmann and Rudy Behlmer

“Singin’ in the Rain:” Raining on a New Generation Documentary

Theatrical Trailer

Should You Buy It?

If you are a hardcore physical media collector like yours truly, this one is a no-brainer.  If you have seen the film before and don’t own it, it’s an even bigger no-brainer.  The one disappointment I always bring up with some of these 4K releases is they are still using previously released special features.  I know it’s a 70-year-old film, but I still think you can add a modern-day special feature with new interviews from film historians and actors to the 4K release instead of just recycling the old ones.  For the price point and the look of the film, Warner Brothers has knocked it out of the park with this 4K release.  It’s simply mesmerizing.  As far as the film itself, it’s one of the greatest of all-time for a reason.  If you own a 4K TV and player, this is the movie you need to buy right now.  You won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen.  This one comes highly recommended!

**Disclaimer** I received a 4K/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.

‘Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago’ – A Vast Improvement

I have always had mixed feelings about “Rocky IV.” On one hand, it is a well-oiled machine which is entertaining, never drags, and you easily find yourself caught up in the action to where you join in with the audience chanting, “ROCKY! ROCKY! ROCKY!” On the other hand, it turned Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character of Rocky Balboa into a superhuman comic book character who has clearly spent far too many hours at the gym to develop his well-chiseled body. This character was a relatable human being who wanted to go the distance, and now he was being rendered as some untouchable force of nature who undergoes the most brutal training regime which no mere mortal can easily endure. Basically, I found this installment of the seemingly endless franchise lacking in humanity, and it would take 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” to bring the character back down to earth.

Well, it turns out Stallone felt the same way about “Rocky IV,” and thanks to this time of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw one of his projects get shut down, he decided to revisit this particular “Rocky” sequel which is still this franchise’s most financially successful as even he found it to be flawed. What resulted is his director’s cut entitled “Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago,” and it has the humanity which was once missing, but now has been found.

The story of “Rocky IV” remains the same. Apollo faces off against Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and pays with his life, and Rocky travels to the Soviet Union to face off against Drago on Christmas Day. Does Rocky win the fight? Bitch, please, you know the answer to that.

Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s recent director’s cuts of “The Cotton Club,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather Part III,” not much about “Rocky IV” has changed here. But again, the characters are fleshed out more here than they were previously, and this made for a more fulfilling cinematic experience for me, and that’s even if the pace drags at times. And yes, Paulie’s robot has been rendered obsolete in this cut. Suffice to say, that robot was no C-3PO and will not be missed.

After a look back at “Rocky III,” this cut starts off with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in his luxurious swimming pool playing with his dogs when Drago and his entourage appear on his television set. This helps change the narrative a bit as we quickly see how this cut is more about Apollo as it shows the character as being restless in his retirement, and it becomes clearer to us how he wants to still matter in a world which may prefer to see him remain retired.

Indeed, Rocky thinks it is time, not just for Apollo, but for him to think about what else they can do with their lives as both have seemingly hit their athletic peak. But in Weathers’ eyes, you can see how desperate he is to remain relevant in the minds of many. It is not just Apollo’s ego crying out for acknowledgement, but also for a need to remain relevant and not easily forgotten. Watching Weathers’ performance here, I can see why Stallone regretted killing Apollo off. Of course, this did lead to the brilliant “Creed.”

Another actor who stands out here is Talia Shire who again takes on one of her most famous roles, Adrian Balboa. When you take the inevitable flashbacks into account, it is fascinating to watch Shire take Adrian from being a shy girl to becoming Rocky’s much-needed conscience as she exerts a confidence which has long since been earned. Indeed, this cut reminds us what a strong anchor she is to Rocky. She is the voice he needs to hear, and that’s even when she yells at him, “You can’t win!” Whereas she appeared quite meek in “Rocky,” she is a force to be reckoned with this time out.

And then there is the late Tony Burton who returns as boxing trainer Tony “Duke” Evans. His character really gets fleshed out a lot here as Tony gives a moving tribute to Apollo, and Burton later shares a thoughtful and moving scene with Stallone where he makes clear with his eyes that Rocky will be the last one standing. Stallone was right; Burton’s eyes were full of soul.

With the Sico the Robot gone, and the chance for Robert Doornick to earn residuals, what else is different about this “Rocky IV” cut? Well, Brigette Nielsen’s role Ludmilla Drago is pared down quite a bit to where her husband gets to talk for himself a bit more. In fact, the late great character actor Michael Pataki gets to speak more for the Russians as Nicolai Koloff this time around, and his wounded face at the movie’s end speaks volumes.

And because of the robot elimination, we see less of Burt Young’s Paulie here to where he is almost forgotten about in the first half. But Paulie does eventually make his cantankerous presence known as he flails around in the snow once in Russia, and his moving tribute to Rocky before he enters the ring is still quite touching. Of course, once Drago pushes Rocky’s gloves down, Paulie takes back what he said. It is very understandable why Stallone did not cut this scene out.

If there is anything I was hoping for in this “Rocky IV” director’s cut, it was to see Ivan Drago humanized a bit more. Part of this is because, during an interview Stallone did with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, he talked about Drago’s harsh origins and how he grew up in the gulag which he eventually escaped. This was very interesting to hear, but we do not see any of this onscreen. While presented as slightly more human, Drago is still portrayed as an invulnerable beast of a man. There isn’t much more to this character than that.

Other than that, it’s nice to see a lot of the cheesiness of the theatrical cut gone. Then again, the line of dialogue when Rocky tells Adrian to never ask him “to stop being a man” does land with as loud a thud as when Luke Skywalker begged his Uncle Owen to let him go into town to get some power converters in “Star Wars.” And no, I still don’t believe all the Russians would have began cheering for Rocky after booing him so viciously as he entered the ring. Sure, some would have started cheering him, but not all.

“Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago” is not a perfect movie, but I consider it a vast improvement over the original version. Around the time this sequel was released 35 years ago (I know, that freaks me out too), Rocky and the franchise was turning into a joke as we had been down this path one too many times it felt. Weird Al Yankovic spoofed Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and called it “The Theme from Rocky XIII” in which Rocky bought the neighborhood deli, “Airplane II: The Sequel” featured a poster of a fictious “Rocky” sequel which showed the Italian Stallion fighting way past his prime, and who can forget this classic line of dialogue from “Spaceballs?”

“Coming up, Pongo’s review of Rocky Five… thousand.”

But to hear Sylvester Stallone talk about his director’s cut and having watched it myself, it is clear he did not simply want to just repeat the formula we had come accustomed to. Rocky Balboa rescued this actor, writer and director from a life of poverty where his dog ate more than he did, and it should be no surprise at how much he cares for this iconic character and the others surrounding him. Had this version of “Rocky IV” been released back in 1985, perhaps many of us would not have been so quick to start joking about the Italian Stallion.

After all these years, we are still clapping along to those songs by Survivor, and we still cheer on Rocky even though the conclusion is never in doubt. While I used to roll my eyes whenever Stallone wanted to revisit this franchise, I say let him do whatever the hell he wants. Except for another “Rambo,” movie, we don’t need it. The last one was awful.

Theatrical Cut: * * ½ out of * * * *

Director’s Cut: * * * ½ 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 * * * *

‘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.

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