‘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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *

‘The Wolf of Snow Hollow’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

Good horror is hard to find these days in Hollywood. Between the endless number of sequels, remakes and jump scare flicks, it can be quite difficult to find a horror flick truly worth of your time.  However, the beauty with cinema are the little gems like “The Wolf of Snow Hollow.”  This film is also notable for being one of the last to feature the late, great Robert Forster.  It was written and directed by its star Jim Cummings.  Thankfully for the audience, he’s up to the task of being the lead, and he has terrific comedic timing.  He knows how to balance the quirky tone of the flick, which is why it’s such a beauty to watch from beginning to end.  The film is 80 minutes when you take out the credits, but it makes the most of each and every scene and character.

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is set in Snow Hollow, Utah where not much of anything happens on a day-to-day basis for local police officer John Marshall (Jim Cummings). In John’s personal life, there is a lot going on as he’s trying to raise a 17-year-old daughter on her way to college despite the fact he and his ex-wife don’t get along at all.  There is also the fact his father, played by the late Robert Forster, is having health issues and struggling to stay retired from his job as Sheriff.  It also doesn’t help that some of the individuals working with him aren’t the brightest and most ambitious bunch of police officers out there.  However, there is one bright spot in Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome) as she takes her job seriously and is there to help out John Marshall whenever he needs her.

In addition to these issues, John is also struggling to stay sober. He’s three years sober after being in AA for six years, but the urge to drink starts to increase when local women are showing up dead left and right in Snow Hollow.  He’s having a hard time solving the case, which is causing increased stress and an inability to sleep until he finds the killer. He also wants to prove to himself, his daughter, his father, and everyone else that he is Sheriff material.  The longer this case goes on, the more blame he is facing from the locals. There are theories out there that it’s a werewolf because of the work of the killer, and he’s not sure if he believes in werewolves or if his mind is playing tricks on him.

However, with each full moon another woman is gruesomely torn to shreds.  The stress and anxiety of the job and John’s day-to-day life is getting to him.  On paper, this might not sound like the type of material which would produce a comedy or a solid horror film.  It’s all in the tone and delivery by the actors and what I would imagine was a very specific script. The deadpan comedic moments are executed flawlessly. The beauty comes in the little moments of the film where the characters are interacting with each other.  John also has an anger problem, which produces some clever and offbeat moments.  It reminded me a lot of “Fargo” if it had werewolves.

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is gorgeously shot as well, and this really stands out when taking the film in as an audience member.  There are a number of overhead shots which are breathtaking. Near the end, Cummings decides to switch tones a bit, and this is a smart move because he transitions to a heartfelt conclusion that is satisfying on many levels. This is a prime example of a film with a $2 million dollar which makes the most of its script, actors and scenery.  It was a film I was not familiar with until its Blu-ray release, but I was pleasantly surprised with it.

This is the perfect cult movie which is going to find an audience as it ages and more people check it out.  With its Blu-ray release, now is the perfect time for you to discover and enjoy it.  I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I look forward to more projects from Cummings in the future.  He has shown a lot of talent and ability here as a writer, director and actor.  I had never seen anything from him before, but I’m very curious to check out his feature film debut from 2018, “Thunder Road.” He’s the kind of talent who likes to do things on his own, but he has proven it is a task not too big for him.  I highly recommend you seek out “The Wolf of Snow Hollow.” You will not be disappointed.

* * * ½ out of * * * * __________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray with a digital code from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 85 minutes and is rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughoutand some drug use.

Video Info:  The film is presented in 1080p high definition. It looks outstanding, and I loved the snowy overhead shots.  For a $2 million dollar budget, as mentioned, it surely stands out on screen and there is a lot to enjoy from a visual perspective.

Audio Info: The Blu-Ray comes with a DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 audio track along with an English Descriptive Audio track. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Special Features:

·         The Story and the Genre

·         The Impetus

·         Working with Jim Cummings

·         The Design of the Werewolf

·         The Story and The Genre

Should You Buy It?

Yes! You need to support independent cinema which is daring, takes risks and has something unique to offer to the film world.  I have a feeling I’m going to be hearing a lot about Jim Cummings in the future.  The film also comes with some solid special features as well.  The Blu-ray looks outstanding and really adds to the atmosphere of the movie.  The more removed I was from this film and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.  It’s also only $14.99 at most major retailers.  If you know someone who is a horror fan, this is the perfect Christmas gift to surprise them with this upcoming holiday season.  “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” is a delightful surprise. I really enjoyed every minute of this film.

**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.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Dr. No’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008 when I was way behind on my 007 watchlist. RIP Sean Connery.

I keep hearing over and over telling me Sean Connery was the best James Bond and still is. And yet after all these years and so many 007 movies later, I have only seen a few of the ones starring Connery. Until yesterday, the only ones I had seen all the way through were “From Russia With Love” which remains one of my favorite Bond movies ever, and the rogue Bond “Never Say Never Again” which brought Connery back to the role for the first time since “Diamonds Are Forever.” The James Bond I really got weaned on as a kid was Roger Moore who played the character like a flamboyant playboy who got caught up in events he looked as though he had no business getting caught in. Nevertheless, Moore managed to get the job done even as the franchise started to descend into parody.

Yesterday, New Beverly Cinema, my favorite movie theater in Los Angeles, had a double feature of the first two Bond movies ever made: “Dr. No” & “From Russia With Love.” I had seen bits and pieces of “Dr. No” previously, but never the whole way through. Watching it today, this 007 adventure seems like an average Bond with the megalomaniac villain bent on world domination. I was starting to get sick of this in the last few films which starred Pierce Brosnan as Ian Fleming’s famous spy. Every once in a while, I like to see Bond go head to head with a villain who is not looking for an infinite level of power, but instead one whom he just wants revenge over like in “License to Kill.”

It helps, however, to keep in mind what action movies were like before James Bond came along. Compared to “Dr. No,” they were nowhere as gritty. Shooting female characters in a film was not allowed back in 1962, and this Bond quickly did away with this unwritten law. There was a lot more going on than just your average good guy here. While it might appear to be something of an average film for those seeing it today, “Dr. No” was in many ways a groundbreaking film which led to a franchise which has lasted longer than so many others.

OK, I am in agreement, nobody played James Bond better than Connery, and this is even though I consider Daniel Craig to be a very close second. His very first appearance as 007 in “Dr. No” was truly brilliant as you could see him at the card playing table, but you did not see his face until he uttered one of the most famous lines in cinematic history:

“Bond. James Bond.”

My dad is always telling me what made Connery so great in playing Bond is that he was so believable in how he could romance a woman one second, and then slap her when she was holding back information from him. There was a raw danger which Connery brought to this iconic character, and he set the bar almost impossibly high for the others who inhabited Bond after him. When he lets a driver take him to his destination, even though he knows this driver is up to no good, shows how quickly Bond can change from being suave and debonair to lethal and dangerous in a heartbeat. Connery’s Bond kept his cool and managed to get his way in the end. The bad guys think they have him cornered, but this is what he wants them to think.

It is endlessly interesting to see how the Bond movies have evolved since “Dr. No.” It remains the only 007 film to not have a pre-titles scene which the others are famous for having. It just goes right into the gun barrel opening in which Bond shoots right at us. The titles look cheesy today as “Dr. No” and “007” are put everywhere on the silver screen. It was the first of many opening credits sequences designed by Maurice Binder, and this one remains the most disjointed of the bunch. It goes from the unforgettable Monty Norman theme we all know to three men superimposed over the credits to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” The audience at the New Beverly laughed at this part, and I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Things have changed a lot since “Dr. No” came out.

Seeing Bond flirt for the first time with Miss Moneypenny (the late Lois Maxwell) here makes me miss the banter these two characters have had from one film to the next. Miss Moneypenny was not in “Casino Royale,” and I have no idea if we will ever see her again in the future. But seeing these characters here for the first time reminded me of how great and fun their banter was until M made her buzz Bond in for his next assignment. Just when things got interesting between the two, business comes to obliterate pleasure.

In “Dr. No,” Bond actually gets to bed several different ladies instead of just one. Connery makes seduction look so easy to pull off. The fact such seduction is not this easy in real life is utterly frustrating. This lucky bastard of an Oscar winning actor had quite a selection before he came to meet the first Bond woman ever, Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), whose entrance in a flesh colored bikini is still one for the ages. This also marked the first time Bond actually sang, and he has not sung since. I can’t help but wonder if this was a good or bad thing. Then again, I can’t quite picture Timothy Dalton singing “Thunderball.” As for Brosnan, I never want to hear him sing again after “Mamma Mia.”

One of Bond’s first death-defying moments involved a tarantula, and just typing out this particular spider’s description sends shivers down my spine! UGGH! This may have been why I never bothered to watch “Dr. No” earlier in my life. Those damn things creep me out like nothing else. Seriously, get that creature away from me! Easily one of the scariest moments in any Bond movie, the tension escalates so quickly to where the rest of this movie can never quite match it. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw spiders in a Bond movie. My brother covered my eyes during one scene in “Octopussy” which included them. I think it is just as well that he did.

Watching “Dr. No” was fun, and it is an excellent Bond movie in many ways. Time has not been exactly kind to it though. We can see the green screen being used, so we have to snicker some. The pace is a lot more leisurely, and no Bond movie can move so slowly these days. Norman’s Bond theme is played endlessly here to where we threaten to get sick of it. But decades later, it is impossible to tire of this theme as it is to tire of John Carpenter’s theme to “Halloween.”

The print New Beverly Cinema had of “Dr. No” was in peak condition, and it was a recent printing down for the occasion of United Artists’ 90th anniversary. It was great to see it on the big screen all the way through instead of just on television. From here, the Bond series had nowhere to go but up. The formula was more or less perfected with “From Russia With Love,” and the producers did not mess with this formula until after “Die Another Day.” I enjoyed “Dr. No,” and I love how it paved the way for many more exciting adventures with this British spy. May there be many more in the years to come.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Bill & Ted Face The Music’ Hits Just The Right Notes

After watching the trailers for “Bill & Ted Face The Music,” one question kept popping into my head: How can these two guys from San Dimas go from playing in front of the largest audience in the world to performing for a crowd of 40 in Barstow, most of whom were there for $2 taco night? At the end of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” we saw news articles of them performing all over the place, and they even got to stage a concert on Mars of all places. Seriously, you cannot plummet from a height of fame like that, right?

Well, keep in mind that at the end of “Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted did finally learn how to play their guitars, but they also performed a cover of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” by KISS. We never did hear them play any original tunes. As “Face The Music” begins, we learn their debut song as writers opened big and then plummeted to the bottom of the charts in record time. Even worse, their follow up albums were ravaged by the critics, one who described their work as being “manure.” Taking this into account, it makes perfect sense they would end up performing in Barstow, a town in the middle of nowhere. Like Vanilla Ice, they shot up into the stratosphere and then saw their follow-up album being sold at a used record store for only 99 cents (and that’s on the day after it was released).

We first see Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) at the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch). Yes, Missy is getting married, and just wait until you find out to who. The two use the occasion to present the world premiere of their latest work, and while they play instruments with more confidence than before, they are still unable to put together a cohesive song, and the response they get is much like the one Spinal Tap received when they told the audience they were going in a “new musical direction.”

Bill and Ted are still married to the princesses, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hays), and they have two beautiful music-loving daughters in Theodora (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Still, they have not yet written the song meant to unite the whole world, and it appears as if this destiny may have been misread. Furthermore, their daughters are in their 20’s and still living at home, and their wives are starting to tire of the lack of the direction in their husbands’ lives. Ted’s dad, Captain Jonathan Logan (Hal Landon Jr.), refuses to believe he and Bill could have traveled in time or gone to heaven and hell and begs them to get “real jobs.” Yes, middle age has hit Bill and Ted real hard to where they feel the need to reassess their goals.

Then into the picture comes Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of the late Rufus, who takes Bill and Ted to the future to meet The Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor) who is not exactly happy with where they have ended up in life. From there, they are informed that the universe is unravelling and will be destroyed if they do not write the unifying song in the next 78 minutes. How about that? You are tasked with writing the song which will unite the world, and you have just over an hour to compose it. Talk about pressure! As we get older, 78 minutes doesn’t last as long as it used to.

Bill, however, comes up with a most excellent plan to travel with Ted into the future when they have already written the song and to take it from themselves. Ted considers this to be stealing, but Bill convinces him it isn’t as long as they are stealing from themselves. Hey, it worked for James Horner!

“Face the Music” comes to us more than 25 years after “Bogus Journey,” so it is hard to know what to expect. It reunites not only Reeves and Winter, but also screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon who penned the previous two films as well. I am thankful to say this sequel is no “Blues Brothers 2000” which relied on an overabundance of nostalgia to where I found myself wanting to watch the original. Instead, it does come with some good laughs and a lot of heart as everyone involved has worked their damndest to bring this last chapter of Bill and Ted to the silver screen and digital streaming for dozens of years. Regardless of what you may think, no one is out to simply repeat themselves here.

Both Reeves and Winter are clearly having a blast as Bill and Ted keep traveling to different parts of the future in an effort to talk to themselves and get the song. This allows the actors to portray them in various ways to where we see them as has beens, a duo ever so in love with English culture, and hard-core prisoners who have bulked far more than you would ever have expected (nice makeup work by the way). Regardless of the many years which have passed them by, both actors slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and they keep these characters from becoming mere caricatures throughout.

Also, believe it or not, there is some evolution to Bill and Ted. Granted, they are still pretty dense when it comes to things like couple’s therapy, but they also realize how their famous sayings of “be excellent to each other” and “party on dudes” do not have the same resonance as they once did. Before they go on their latest excellent adventure, they have to realize they are at a crossroads as things cannot keep going the way they have been as things have got to change. Still, it is worth it to see them playing air guitar here and there even as they approach middle age with inescapable apprehension.

Both Weaving and Lundy-Paine are fun to watch as the daughters, and this is even though the section where they search for famous musicians to create a band is the film’s weakest. It’s a bit of an anemic retread of when Bill and Ted, on their “Excellent Adventure,” went back in time to gather historical figures for their final history exam. Regardless, it is cool to see Jimi Hendrix jam with a bewildered Mozart who has no idea what he is hearing.

It is also great to see William Sadler return as the Grim Reaper as he stole every scene he had in “Bogus Journey.” He too slips back into this hilarious character as if he just played him yesterday, and not once does he have to struggle to get a laugh out of any of us. Seeing the Reaper attempt to make peace with Bill and Ted over the fallout they had with all those 40-minute bass solos is not just one of “Face the Music’s” funniest moments, but also one of its most heartfelt.

Each of the “Bill & Ted” films have had a different director: Stephen Herek directed “Excellent Adventure,” Pete Hewitt helmed “Bogus Journey,” and behind the camera for this installment is Dean Parisot. As a result, each one has a different feel to it despite having most of the same cast and the same screenwriters. Parisot is a perfect fit for this entry as he is terrific at mining material for both laughs and heart, and he proved this with “Galaxy Quest,” one of the greatest cult movies ever made. “Face the Music” doesn’t reach the same heights as “Galaxy Quest,” but Parisot does show a lot of respect for these characters and gives this sequel the heart it deserves. More importantly, he gives it a fulfilling conclusion which truly put a big smile on my face.

Upon first watching “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” I have to admit my feelings on it were mixed as I hoped it would be funnier. But after watching it a second time, I found myself appreciating it more as speaks to the values of friendship and music, both of which we need in these crazy times. Whether or not this sequel is all you ever hoped for, it is clear everyone involved put everything they had into it, and I do hope the fans are satisfied with what they see.

Could a fourth “Bill & Ted” movie ever happen? I don’t know, and frankly this one serves as good conclusion. Seeing them rock out at the conclusion reminds me of what Neil Young once said:

“Rock and roll can never die.”

Damn right! Party on dudes!

* * * out of * * * *

Bond 25 Finally Gets Its Title, and You May Be Surprised By It

No Time To Die 007 logo

We have been hearing so much about the 25th film in the 007 franchise to where it threatens to feel like we have watched it in full long before it arrives in theaters everywhere. Daniel Craig confirmed to Stephen Colbert he would return to do a fifth movie as James Bond, Danny Boyle was originally set to direct but later dropped out and was replaced by Cary Joji Fukunaga, and there were rumors Adele would return to compose this film’s theme song. Other than that, we were left with an endless set of questions: Would Christoph Waltz return as Blofeld? Who will compose the score for this one? Can they possibly get “Skyfall” cinematographer Roger Deakins to return? What kind of Bond villain is Oscar winner Rami Malek going to play? Who will be the latest Bond woman?

As fans posed these questions and several others, many including myself had one which we desperately wanted an answer to: WHAT WAS THIS BOND FILM GOING TO BE TITLED??!! In the wake of a press conference featuring the cast of Bond 25 and various behind the scenes images from the set, it seemed no one thought to give this one a name. Did longtime Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade start writing it without a title in mind? Did fellow scribes Fukunaga, Scott Z. Burns or Phoebe Waller-Bridge get a chance to add their two cents to this issue? Seriously, it cannot be this difficult to generate a title for this or any other motion picture, right?

Well, after what feels like an eternity, MGM has finally given us the title of the 25th James Bond film: “No Time to Die.” My opinion regarding this title is quite mixed. A title like this one sounds like something out of an easily disposable paperback novel, while fun to read, won’t stay in the mind for too long. Granted, “Die Another Day” was already taken, but after the titles of the previous Craig Bond movies (“Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace,” “Skyfall” and “Spectre”) which implied quite a bit without saying so much, this one feels surprisingly ordinary. Couldn’t they have come up with something infinitely more inspired?

At the same time, perhaps it is not a bad title for this installment, likely the last to feature Craig as 007. In terms of years, Craig has now held onto this iconic role longer than any of his predecessors, and we have grown with him as we watched him make this role his own from “Casino Royale” to “Spectre.” In this installment, Bond is said to have retired from active duty and is now enjoying a leisurely life with Dr. Madeleine Swan (Lea Seydoux) in Jamaica. But the vacation quickly ends when his CIA pal, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), arrives in town and asks for Bond’s help in rescuing a kidnapped scientist. Suffice to say, retirement does not last long for Bond, and the only way for him to escape any sort of responsibility from this situation would be death. However, death would be the easy way out, and Bond is not about to go down that route.

Craig’s interpretation of James Bond reminds me a lot of Jack Bauer from “24” as both characters have sworn a loyalty to their countries of origin, and this is a loyalty which, whether they admit it or not, proves to be far more important than anything else in their lives. Still, their actions come with consequences and an inescapable case of karma which will never let them rest easy. How does one live with being someone who willingly kills if the situation calls for it and not go through life with one form of guilt or another? Craig’s Bond has numbed his consciousness more often than not with alcohol, and this is regardless of whether it is shaken or not stirred. The only way a character like this can possibly find peace is in the realm of death, and Bond is not about to choose this realm as he eventually returns to his call of duty when the circumstances call for it, and this installment makes it clear he is not about to die even if it will cease his suffering.

“No Time to Die” will arrive in theaters in April of 2020. Check out the title announcement below.

 

 

‘Booksmart’ is an Instant High School Movie Classic

Booksmart movie poster

Looking back at my high school days, I wonder if I got into enough trouble as a kid. I was a good kid for the most part, a pretty good student, and was and still am a firm believer in karma. Still, a lot of my fellow classmates who constantly got into all kinds of mischief, some of which involved police involvement, seem to be doing much better in life than me. The other day, I read an article about how the kids who were really into heavy metal back in the 1980’s have since turned out to be well-adjusted adults. Perhaps if I had discovered Metallica in elementary school instead of high school, I would feel well-adjusted as well. Besides, neither Megadeath nor Motley Crue came even close.

I bring this up because these thoughts went through my head as I watched “Booksmart,” an American coming of age comedy which has at its center two females who have been best friends since childhood and are now one day away from graduating high school. They have been model students, paid far more attention to their studies than partying, and they have since been accepted to some of the best colleges America has to offer. But with one day of high school left, they begin to wonder if they haven’t fooled around enough in the past four years. What results is a film which has been described as a female “Superbad,” and it is one of the best coming-of-age films I have seen in some time.

It is made clear from the start how best friends Molly Davidson (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy Antsler (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent more time studying these past four years than they have getting wasted every other weekend. Molly is the student body president, but she is nowhere as popular as the vice-president, Nick Howland (Mason Gooding), who only went for the position because it involved planning parties. Amy came out as gay two years ago, and she is harboring a huge crush on fellow classmate Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) which could go unrequited. But while they have accomplished so much, these two young women are typically spurned by their fellow classmates as being too pretentious.

Molly ends up convincing Amy to go to Nick’s party, the biggest end-of-the-school party of all, after she makes a shocking discovery. While she and Amy have gotten into good schools, Molly discovers her fellow classmates who looked to have been partying their scholastic years away have also gotten accepted to prestigious institutions as well. How is this possible? Well, Molly isn’t sure, but she sees this party as their last chance to have the fun they somehow denied themselves during their time in high school.

Like many great movies, “Booksmart” isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey. Molly and Amy’s determination to get to Nick’s party is quickly thwarted by the fact they have no idea where it is. As a result, they are forced to endure detours to other parties they did not plan on going to, cell phones which are quickly drained of all their energy, and teachers who either have unexpected side jobs or have forever sworn off drinking certain smoothies from Jamba Juice.

“Booksmart” marks the feature directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, an actress as strikingly intelligent as she is fiercely beautiful. She has said “The Breakfast Club,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Clueless” served as inspirations for this film, and she has taken the best parts from each of them and created something which feels wonderfully unique. It has many laughs and heartbreaking moments which we can all relate to as, regardless of the advances in technology, our high school years were always emotional battlefields which left us with psychic scars which never fully heal.

Along with a cleverly crafted screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, Wilde takes the time to explore the various personalities high school has to offer, and of the cliques they have long since been consigned to. But as the story goes on, these same individuals get a chance to peel back the façade given to them by their classmates to where we see people trying to survive these rough and tumble years as rumors about their supposed behavior still spread like wildfires which can never be easily put out. It’s moments like these I always cherish in high school movies as no one is ever what they appear to be on the surface, and this is what I think “Booksmart” is truly about; looking past what you think you see to discover what is really there, and making us see we are all the same.

Both Davidson and Antsler are perfectly cast as Molly and Amy to where they make you believe they have been best friends forever. We root for them as they look to live their last night as high schoolers to the fullest, and we feel for them as they eventually realize they may never see each other again for the longest time after this year is over. And yes, the two have a tense confrontation when they reveal truths which should have been confronted ages ago, and Wilde sticks the knife in deeper by muting their conversation as the looks on their faces is enough to illustrate the painful truths and grudges which have now forced their way to the surface.

Another memorable performance comes from Billie Lourd as Gigi, a gleefully blissed-out individual who somehow shows up at every high school party Molly and Amy are at. She is a riot throughout and inhabits her character with such wonderful abandon to where I believe Silberman when she said extra scenes were written for Lourd as everyone was really impressed with her performance.

In addition, there are some nice cameos from Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow who play Amy’s parents and have prepared a dinner with food names which need to be heard to be fully appreciated. Jason Sudeikis has some choice moments as school principal Jordan Brown who shows up unexpectedly throughout the film. And Diana Silvers has some strong scenes as Hope, a seemingly mean school girl who eventually lets her poker face down.

Wilde also has wonderful collaborators in Dan the Automator who composed the energetic film score, and cinematographer Jason McCormack who gives the visuals a reality we can relate to as well as a fantastical quality when our heroines slip into their imaginations to where one dance sequence looks like it was shot by Benoît Debie.

“Booksmart” arrives in theaters one year after “Eighth Grade,” a film about the worst year in our lives. “Booksmart” isn’t quite as brutal as it takes place in a time when the divisions between teenagers begin to disappear as they are all about to advance to another, and more vulnerable, stage in their lives. Still, it proves to be as entertaining, thoughtful and at times as heartbreaking. While it may invite easy comparison with “Superbad,” it is by no means a gender reversed remake of it. I don’t know how many out there think it is, but it is worth pointing this out here.

In a time when summer blockbusters and superhero movies reign supreme at the box office, a movie like this can get buried too easily. Here’s hoping “Booksmart” gets the audience it deserves in one way or another. And after you have watched it, you will agree that panda bears will never, ever be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

George Lazenby Reflects on Playing 007 in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’

On Her Majestys Secret Service movie poster

After all these years, George Lazenby is still the only actor to play James Bond in just one movie, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” While nowhere as respected as Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, Lazenby still has his share of fans who gave him a standing ovation when he appeared at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The evening’s moderator, Stephen Rubin, proclaimed Lazenby was a “terrific James Bond,” and if he had to do just one Bond movie, he picked the right one to star in.

After five movies, Connery quit playing Bond as he had grown tired of what he described as “impossibly long schedules.” Lazenby was not the first choice to replace Connery as he had no acting experience other than doing commercials, and Lazenby claimed he got considered for Bond when the late Cubby Broccoli spotted him at a haberdashery getting a Connery-like haircut.

Directing this 007 adventure was Peter Hunt who apparently got the job as a Christmas present from the Broccoli family. Lazenby described him as tough and that he got his way most of the time. He also admitted lying to Hunt about being an actor, and when Lazenby later told him he wasn’t, Hunt went crazy and fell down on the floor laughing. Once he composed himself, he told Lazenby, “Stick to your story. I’ll make you the next James Bond!”

The two of them, however, had a falling out on the first day of shooting, and Lazenby said Hunt didn’t speak to him again for nine months. According to Rubin, Hunt’s challenge in getting a performance out of Lazenby was to “piss him off.” Rubin also remarked how tough the last scene must have been for Lazenby as it’s the most emotional in the Bond franchise, and Lazenby said he did one take with tears and that Diana Rigg, who plays Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” bit him to get the desired emotion in another which he said wasn’t needed.

One thing’s for certain, Lazenby’s work in the action sequences was nothing short of excellent. On top of holding several black belts in martial arts, he credited a lot of his toughness from living in Australia where you “smack your mate.” Sounding almost Russell Crowe-ish about his birthplace, Lazenby said he could take care of himself once he got the first hit in, and back then he was too stupid to be afraid.

Regarding his fellow cast mates, Lazenby said Rigg thought he was a “complete idiot,” and she got pissed at him after he beat her in a game of chess. She also didn’t want him mucking around with other girls during filming, a promise Lazenby admitted he was unable to keep. He was discovered having a tryst with a receptionist, and when asked if she was memorable, Lazenby replied, “She was!”

Telly Savalas played Bond’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Lazenby described him as a “great guy who loved to gamble.” When Lazenby got a raise from $100 to $1,000 a week during shooting, Savalas saw his money and asked, “Hey, do you play poker?” Lazenby also said Savalas used to bet everything he had including his house.

Even if Lazenby is still considered the worst actor ever to portray James Bond, it certainly didn’t seem to be the case considering the standing ovation he got upon entering the Egyptian Theatre. He gave us a 007 at his most relaxed in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this makes his interpretation of the role the most unique in the long-running franchise.