BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER

By Marc S. Sanders

Marvel does it right.  DC doesn’t.  Black Panther: Wakanda Forever  is not a perfect film, but it’s not Black Adam.  The latest Marvel production offers sharp visual effects and action scenes, along with thought provoking moments that reflect on loss.  Black Adam offers a crusty, yellow lightning bolt on the chest of The Rock.

Director Ryan Coogler was faced with a terrible challenge to make the follow up to his smash hit, Black Panther.  The star at the center of the film, Chadwick Boseman, unexpectedly passed away from colon cancer.  A screenplay for the film’s sequel had to suddenly be rehashed.  A unified cast had to work with a hole in its structure.  Coogler opted not to recast the role of T’Challa, the King of the fictional African nation, Wakanda.  That was a smart choice.  Boseman’s portrayal was so embraced in that film, as well as three other Marvel chapters, that he was seemingly irreplaceable.  T’Challa was not just another James Bond or Batman.

I liked most of Wakanda Forever.  First and foremost, the primary cast is mostly female and Marvel’s early reputation with female characters left a lot to be desired when all they would do is flirt with the action star and scream for help.  As well, none of the women characters were very diverse.  The African influence of the Black Panther characters demonstrate that the Marvel universe is unlimited in appearance and style.  (Star Wars productions of late prove that as well.) 

The design of the picture is also gorgeous.  I still yearn for Wakanda to be a real locale that can be toured.  I’m sure Disney is already giving this some thought.  At times, it was hard to know what overhead locations were mere CGI and what was real.  The backdrops are seamless.  The whole movie is gorgeous. 

The sensitivity to the loss of Boseman is especially handled beautifully.  The opening sequence is a ceremony we have all been waiting for since the actor’s death two years prior to the release of the film.  Some of the customs and practices might be fictional, albeit inspired by what has been researched in other factual nations and observances, but it is also endearing.  The silence of the Marvel logo montage will especially grab you.

Wakanda Forever is carried primarily by Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  The film takes place one year after T’Challa has passed away from a disease and she is not ready to burn the funeral garb she wore when his soul was sent off to the ancestors.  However, while Wakanda was once thought to be the sole resource of Vibranium, the most powerful element in the world, a new character is introduced from under the ocean.  Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is the mutant who leads a nation of underwater dwellers with their own source of Vibranium.  He proposes that his nation works in conjunction with Wakanda to protect what they possess from other nations (like the United States and France; though why must Marvel show these countries in a bad light?) who could potentially use this commodity for nefarious purposes. 

From this seed in the storyline, subplots are branched out.  They just don’t work, though.  Wakanda’s American ally, Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), is brought back into the fold.  He only adds unnecessary running time to a very long film.  First, he provides a lead on to a new character, that’s expected to fill the hole left by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man.  A character named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who I have learned becomes the super hero Iron Heart with a new Iron suit.  After that Ross is left to watch Anderson Cooper on CNN as we have already seen the plot unfolding for ourselves, and have conversations with a character named Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis Dreyfus, looking at her most uninteresting and boring).  I know. This character serves as teaser fodder for what the MCU promises in future installments, but why is it necessary?  I believe this is her third appearance between the films and Disney + shows.  All she does is drag the stories down.  Wakanda Forever is a 2 hour and 40-minute film, that could have saved thirty minutes without the characters from Freeman and Dreyfus, and likely Thorne as well.  Let’s just stick with the Wakandans and forget about advertising what’s coming next from the Marvel factory, please.

Another issue with the film is the delay of showing the new Black Panther.  That’s what we ultimately paid for.  The middle section of this long running time had me yearning for when I could see the new suit in action, and who was going to wear it.  When it finally arrives in the third act, I gotta say I was let down.  While there’s a newly inventive design, like each time there was with Iron Man, we don’t see much of what’s new in action and there’s hardly anything that’s novel about it.  Does this Black Panther suit offer any new tricks? 

What’s fortunate for the film is the cast.  Letitia Wright has a good balance of youth segueing into maturity as she toils with loss.  I love this angle in the same way I appreciated the cancer storyline written for Natalie Portman in Thor: Love And Thunder.  Superpowers do not shield us from what slowly dwindles our lives away.  Angela Basset remains a very strong actor after an over forty-year career as the surviving Queen of Wakanda.  She commands a powerful presence of authority.  Danai Gurira as the spear wielding acrobatic Wakandan warrior Okoye is absolutely cool in action scenes.  She also has well written scenes to perform with the other two leads, as her character’s commitment to country is tested. 

Ironically, the Namor character is one of the oldest Marvel characters in print, introduced long before Spider-Man or the Hulk came on the page.  I was never a fan of the character though.  He just didn’t have a cool enough costume for me as it was only a bathing suit and he had wings on his ankles.  Meh.  I feel the same way here.  The back story of the character is altered to fit the mold of the script, and that’s okay, but I didn’t feel for this antagonist’s plight.  In the prior film, I was more on the side Eric Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) cause than I was on T’Challa’s.  In this film, Namor is just a guy to do battle with while he flies and swims.

Ryan Coogler is a detailed director.  When I’m in Wakanda, I want to explore every building and hop aboard each vehicle that hovers overhead.  He leaves no stone unturned.  I would have chosen for some of the action scenes to be shot in the daytime so I could get a better look at what goes on.  I feel that way about all action and adventure films.  However, a darkened action scene in nearly any Marvel film is much more articulated than any scene, daylight or otherwise, in Black Adam from DC.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a good film, but not great, mostly due to its overstayed running time.  What should have been cut from the final reel is obvious.  Yet, good writing and acting allows for the film that many Marvel fans needed after one of their heroes left us.  Losing Chadwick Boseman likely equates to how we lost our Superman, Christopher Reeve.  It seemed so unfair that someone who offered such heroic optimism and joy could be taken from our reach so early in life.  At least, the loss of Boseman was thankfully not washed over with a replacement that could never fill his void.

BREAKDOWN

By Marc S. Sanders

The southwest region of the United States can be brutal.  The desert landscape is scorchingly hot and the end of the world seems like an eternity away…no matter how fast you drive or how far you go.  Worse yet could be the truckers and locals who could care less about who you are, where you came from or where you’re going.  So, you better be sure your well equipped Jeep Cherokee has enough gas in the tank and your oil dipstick comes up black.  For Jeff and Amy Taylor, though, nothing they do will matter.  Their car is destined to break down anyway.

Jonathan Mostow wrote and directed a taut thriller called Breakdown that builds on a Hitchcockian formula for a road picture.  When Jeff and Amy’s (Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan) car breaks down on a long, lonesome highway in the middle of the desert, a friendly trucker stops by (JT Walsh) to lend a hand.  He offers to take them to the next stop where they can call a tow truck.  Jeff agrees to stay with the car.  Amy hitches a ride to call for the tow.  Shortly after, Jeff realizes that Amy has mysteriously disappeared.  When Jeff catches up with the trucker, the situation gets even stranger because this guy claims to have never met Jeff before or even know who his wife is.  It gets even weirder and more frightening from there.

Kurt Russell is very good in a relatively simple, but effective story that only needs its ninety minutes to get your heart racing.  As Jeff learns of the conspiracy playing against him, the panic builds in Russell’s performance.  A really effective moment occurs when Jeff is forced to go to a local bank and withdraw ransom money.  While the banker is executing the money transaction, Jeff enters the restroom.  In this short moment, Mostow keeps a good close up on a very sweaty, beaten and nervous Kurt Russell.  Jeff is looking for something to use as a weapon.  Now, we’ve seen this many times before.  What kept me absorbed in the suspense of the film is how Kurt Russell evokes his thought process without having anyone to talk to.  In this bathroom, he involuntarily walks in circles, seemingly asking himself “what am I going to do?”.  Mostow never breaks the shot, allowing his lead’s performance to send home the paranoia.  I was right there with this poor guy.  What is Jeff going to do?

JT Walsh was an under the radar character actor; one of those guys that you recognize from dozens of films (Good Morning, Vietnam, A Few Good Men), but you just never knew his name.  He passed away too soon.  I’d wager eventually he’d get some kind of awards recognition.  This is a magnificent villain in Breakdown.  A good antagonist is one you can trust at first.  So that when the veil is lifted, your jaw drops a little.  Walsh accomplishes that here.  He turns on the good guy and he betrays the viewer.  He really plays a guy with two masks on.  Friendly and helpful at first.  Later, a toothless scowl is across his face as he terrorizes Jeff.  The big rig truck that Walsh drives becomes reminiscent of what Steven Spielberg accomplished with his first film, Duel.

While a Jeff Taylor character may have appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock film, as the common man caught up in an outrageous plot he was never looking for, Jonathan Mostow has modernized the method with well edited action scenes.  This is a road picture but there really are not car chases to behold.  Instead, there are moments where like any of us, we will increase our speed on long stretches of road.  When we take our eyes off the highway for a split second, we never expect what will pop out and startle us.  As well, when we try to pass ahead by cutting into the opposite lane, a head on collision may come our way.  The film goes for those pressure points first before another overly used car chase.  This is where the environment fights back against the protagonist.  

The location shoots of Breakdown are superb.  An old diner, in the middle of nowhere, has some locals who could care less about a polite out of towner, clearly concerned about his missing wife.  They just look straight ahead while nursing their beers.  The bartender has also had enough of this guy to the point of threatening him with a gun to get out of the joint.  A passing by police officer (Rex Linn of Better Call Saul, another great character actor) devotes no more than five minutes of his time to poor Jeff’s concern, and then he moves on.  The desert and the people who occupy the area serve only apathy to a helpless stranger.  The setting of Breakdown is a villain all its own.

This thriller works simply because a scenario like this could happen to any of us.  It was released in 1997, just ahead of the cell phone age, and there’s acknowledgement of that time.  Jump to today and this situation could still happen.  Technology is not always going to help us, no matter how many bells and whistles we have on a car or how many bars show on our handheld devices.  In the desert, any one of us can be a victim unto ourselves.  In the middle of nowhere, a bad guy can use an opportunity to his advantage at the expense of any persons leaving themselves unguarded.

Breakdown shows that our worst nightmare could be to drive into an endless daylight void, where any one of us can get stuck, only to later get caught.  It’s scary as a desert hell, and it’s a fantastic nail biter right until its bang-up conclusion.

BLACK ADAM

By Marc S. Sanders

Black Adam has to be the first superhero movie that apologizes for the mind numbingly stupid two hours you just endured, by offering up an enticing ninety second end credits scene.  That’s all that this headache inducing piece of noise has going for it; the end credit scene.  The film is so headache inducing that I’d rather be serenaded with a duet performance of a car alarm and a leaf blower singing a rendition of a song I’ve always despised, like Red, Red Wine.

About twenty minutes into Dwayne Johnson’s debut into the DC Cinematic Universe, as the title character, I reflected on Raiders Of The Lost Ark from 1981.  Remember when the government suits ask Indiana Jones about the significance of the Ark Of The Covenant?  It took three minutes to sum up what was at stake, what the hero was going after and who he was expected to be up against.  That’s it.  After that, the piece was constructed to offer up one kind of stunt or action sequence or visual effect after another.  The difference is that everything you saw served its story and thus carried on the pursuit. How I long for the days of intelligent writing.

Black Adam tries at least three times over the course of two hours to explain brainless conjecture about an ancient city where its inhabitants dig for some powerful element, called Eternium, at the behest of their harsh ruler.  Then there’s something about a crown and a slave boy who comes into play.  Later, I think his father is mentioned, but I was nodding off by then.  I’m only mad at myself for focusing more on inhaling the contents of my popcorn bucket rather than getting invested in a movie.  My mission was no longer to maintain an interest in this big budget comic book tripe.  Now, I was destined to get to the bottom of my overly priced snack food container.  This is not why I go to the movies, people!

When the movie is not talking (which hardly ever happens), it is pounding at my cranium with horrible CGI dust clouds and lightning bolts that offer up blindingly, irritating sights and bombastic sounds.  My eyes hurt.  My ears hurt.  Light a firecracker, drop it in a tuba and blow.  It’s likely more soothing to the senses.  For surround sound, turn on your garbage disposal with your car keys in it.  It’ll all be much more harmonious and pleasant. 

What little I know of Black Adam is limited to a scant few comic book images.  Long before I knew of Dwayne Johnson, it seemed inevitable that only this guy could play the part.  It’s an uncanny resemblance.  No one else can play this role.  The supporting cast is promising, especially a sophisticated and well-aged Pierce Brosnan as the one with sorcerer like powers.  His Dr. Fate is maybe DC’s equivalent to Marvel’s Dr. Strange.  Aldis Hodge is Hawkman, and he looks absolutely confident in the guise with outspread bird wings and a kick ass helmet and spiked ball on a staff for a personal weapon.  A guy named Noah Centineo is the Atom Smasher.  He’s cute enough to fill the void for Ezra Miller when he eventually gets fired from his cushy gig as the Flash.

So, I don’t get it.  Warner Bros and DC assemble a terrifically talented cast who not only look good in the costumes, but can act with timing as well. Yet, they give them nothing to do but be digitized in terrible CGI that makes the Hanna Barbera Superfriends cartoons look like breakthrough technology.  Everything looks terribly animated in Black Adam, and therefore it’s as boring as a church sermon that won’t end because the minister is overindulging in chastising you for cheating on your diet.  Johnson on the big screen flying up to the top of a towering monument looks ridiculous, like an ¾ inch action figure next to a life size kitchen refrigerator.  I’m supposed to believe that’s Dwayne Johnson up there?  Probably because Johnson was not in the image, or if he was there, he had no concept what he was supposed to be looking at.  Captions like this happen multiple times here, but they are all devoid of emotion or depth.  The statue itself looks unfinished by the effects wizards.  There’s hardly any detail to it. What’s it supposed to signify?  I completely bought it when Christopher Reeve flew against the skyscrapers of Metropolis way back when.  In today’s age of films, this movie takes about a hundred steps back in progress.  Everything looks artificial.  Nothing looks convincing.

Black Adam is also unsure of a well contained story.  I’ll take no issue with the movie being episodic if that’s what its intention was meant to be.  First the main character is fighting a military that stems from I don’t know what organization or country.  They fire rockets and machine guns at him.  Does nothing.  So, what do I care?  Then he’s fighting the other super heroes in the picture.  They pound each other into the desert streets and dust clouds heighten into the earth.  What’s to be gained from any of that? Black Adam then fights a gang that looks no more threatening than a lame motorcycle posse.  Eventually, he’s battling some kind of CGI devil monster who needs a cough drop.  This guy mustn’t sit on the throne located at the top peak over the city.  If he does, all hell breaks loose and blah, blah, blah.  This is like watching a lame CW TV series crammed into two long tortuous hours.  How does this movie go from here to there and then over there and end up wherever?  I gave up trying to string it all together.

It’s ridiculous how dumb Black Adam is, especially when you consider how much thought went into a ninety second epilogue teaser before you leave the theatre.  I’m sorry but I expect these filmmakers and studios who harbor these big budgets and hype to work on the same level of imagination and craft as a Steven Spielberg or a Christopher Nolan.  Nolan reinvented the Batman franchise.  He took his time to flesh out character motivation while painting a scenery for his own flavor of Gotham City.  Marvel did this as well when Jon Favreau was wise enough to follow a Spielbergian trajectory with the original Iron Man.  Kevin Feige often has not broken the formula since, because it succeeds.  Black Adam neglects all of these techniques.  Its lack of any quality is traitorous towards its consumers.

I don’t recall a conversation among the characters that lasts longer than four sentences.  By the end of the film, I’m not sure if Black Adam is a bad guy or a good guy.  I don’t know what was resolved to tie up the picture.  I don’t know when the turning point occurred, and Black Adam got an upper hand over anyone he does battle with.  Actually, he’s never challenged or weakened.  So, where’s the suspense?  What stakes are at play?

Black Adam functions as an eight-year-old kid in his room with his toy action figures.  They crash into another and the child makes a “pshoosh!” sound with his duck face lips.  I expect eight-year-olds to just enjoy their play things.  They don’t have to focus on exposition for themselves or anyone else.  Let them escape.  However, I didn’t pay to watch an eight-year-old play on the floor with his toys. 

The failure of this movie is inexcusable.  It angers me that filmmakers with unlimited resources and a wealth of source material are not trying harder like some of their industry peers.  It’s unfair to movie goers to pay for junk primarily assembled on a Dell computer with a wireless mouse.  Coloring books have more texture than this finished product.

Black Adam is a treachery in any context of the word, filmmaking.  It’s not art.  It’s not fun.  It’s nothing more than shit turned white.  It’s not fresh shit.  It’s worse.  It’s rotten shit.

ALIENS: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

By Marc S. Sanders

James Cameron’s Aliens is deliberately morose in its storytelling and cinematic look.  It’s ugly and nightmarish.  It’s nerve-wracking at times.  It’s dark and somber too.  It’s also one of the best action films ever made.  For me, this is Cameron’s best film and it’s not only because I’m a sci-fi blockbuster nerd of sorts. 

Serving as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s monster movie, Alien from 1979, Aliens works on its own independence while still adhering to the storyline qualities of the original.  Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley.  The story begins 57 years later where Ripley’s lifeboat ship from the end of the first film is found in deep space.  She reports back to the conglomerate company of the terrifying happenings she experienced with her crew mates who didn’t survive when an unrecognizable creature terrorized them aboard their vessel.  The company is less than apt to believe her account though. 

One of the company men, Burke (Paul Reiser), requests that Ripley accompany him and a squad of tough Marines on a mission to the planet, LV-426, where her crew discovered an immense crop of eggs and took back an alien aboard their ship.  In Ripley’s absence, a colony of over a hundred families was set up on the planet to establish habitable real estate.  However, the colony has lost contact, and the company is sending in the military to assess the situation to see what’s going on. Ripley is supposed to only serve as an advisor.

James Cameron’s script and direction takes its time to build up suspense and explore what’s unknown to these soldiers.  Upon arrival on the planet, much of what they find is left in wreckage and no one is to be found anywhere.  At best, Ripley can only see what was likely the remains of alien attacks with acid burns within the steel structures.  Yet to Ripley and viewers familiar with the first film, it is still a mystery as to what truly occurred.  Naturally, more will eventually be uncovered and then this arriving crew will have their hands full.

James Cameron has an imagination that bursts with colorful and amazing ideas.  The Terminator films were astonishing in its own apocalyptic future that haunts a present time period.  Titanic was a film mired in much expense and technical setbacks. Though, no one ever expected just how accomplished the award-winning blockbuster turned out to be.  Avatar is wonderous on a planetary level.  However, James Cameron is not necessarily a celebrated script writer.  Often his dialogue is very cheesy and unnatural.  Aliens is the exception though.

The script acknowledges that these gung-ho marines are “grunts.”  Thankfully, they talk like grunts.  I know that many fans adore Bill Paxton as the cut-up member of the troupe known as Hudson, who has brilliant one liners.  It’s actually a well fleshed out character.  Before Hudson knows what he’s up against, this new mission is just a lame “bug hunt” and he happily screams out as their spacecraft makes the quick drop into the planet’s atmosphere.  When he eventually comes to face to face with the monsters, terrifying, cry baby like fear overtakes him.  He’s giving his one liners like “Game over, Man,” and “We’re  fucked!”  Yet, the dread and anxiety are completely relatable.  There’s something out there waiting to tear me apart and eat me, and there’s hardly anyone left to help and rescue me.  I’m in the middle of nowhere.  Cameron wrote a good under the radar kind of character, and we feel for this guy’s dilemma as if it’s our own.  Paxton’s performance made it better and awarded it with adrenalized highs…and these aliens, with teeth and tails and acid for blood, are most definitely scary as hell.

I no longer watch the original theatrical cut of Aliens.  I turn to the Director’s Cut that Cameron always envisioned.  Particularly, it triumphs because the Ripley character is much more fleshed out with necessary dimension for the film.  Early on, a cut scene, now restored, tells us that Ripley’s daughter died from cancer while she was lost in deep space.  The daughter lived to the age of 66, even though Ripley didn’t age a bit.  Awakening from her cryo sleep, only introduces heartache for Ripley.  What I like about this information is that it serves a relationship later found in Aliens.  A little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) is found by the marines and appears to be the sole survivor of the alien attacks.  Ripley steps in as a surrogate mother towards Newt as all of the characters work tirelessly to survive and somehow get off the planet.  The Director’s Cut gives some value to Ripley and purpose beyond just violently slaughtering aliens as a means of revenge or fulfillment.  It allows Aliens to work on an effective emotional level and Sigourney Weaver earned her Oscar nomination because of it.

Cameron introduces traitors as well into the story, which are likely not so surprising but make the film all the more challenging for the heroes of the picture.  Michael Biehn is the sex symbol, a cool and quiet tough guy.  Jenette Goldstein is a Hispanic marine who gives off good imagery as one of the few female squad members who enters the areas first with the largest gun in the troupe.  Lance Henrikson is memorable as an android that Ripley is apprehensive to trust – perhaps he’s the “Mr. Spock” of this sci-fi entry.

Technically speaking, Aliens is so unbelievably atmospheric in its bleak, futuristic setting.  Barring a few moments where the spaceships clearly look like miniatures, the interiors look organically formed.  I can’t compliment the set pieces enough in that respect.  When the Marines enter a large cavern, it is enormously shell like that it looks like an animal’s nest.  Cameron hides his various monsters perfectly.  So that when they slowly unravel their tales and skeletal forms, it looks as if the darkness within the frames begin to move.  The stillness of what surrounds our main characters awaken with life that maybe we don’t want to see. 

Aliens works independent of Ridley Scott’s prior picture because it’s a war movie; one that is set on an outer space planet.  We witness how the surviving squad troops strategize with what little they have left.  Thereafter, we see how they face enemies who may have the upper hand in battles to come.  I love how Cameron builds suspense with a sensor device the troops use.  It begins to ring as a life form closes in on their proximity.  The monitor fills with glowing blurs as more life forms nearby build up.  A nervous and great moment occurs when they can not understand how the aliens could be so close and yet none of them can see what is so nearby.  The surprise is unexpected and worthy of a scream. 

Cameron’s script doesn’t give his heroes a break.  Aliens thrives on the characters simply playing keep away, while one member of the party is working against what little they have left.  I like that.  While Aliens may be intentionally dreary the fact that there’s no easy out for these folks is what keeps the pulse of the film racing with nonstop suspense and action.

Aliens is an absolutely solid picture promising a future for this franchise. Sadly, it really never excelled above what was accomplished in these first two films from Ridley Scott, and now James Cameron.  Years later, Scott returned to the franchise with some interesting prequel films that colored in some of the elements that were only talked about before, like the company that puts all these people within the peril of the aliens.  Yet to date, that all still remains unfinished.  James Cameron just set the bar so high with his movie that the few that followed never amounted to what he created.

You may not feel all warm and fuzzy after watching Aliens, but at least you’ll feel incredibly excited with its construction from a director in the early years of his profession.  James Cameron brought about a solid script and unbelievable effects that say so much on a visual level.  If Aliens makes you nervous, fearful and especially terrified, then James Cameron has done his job.

BOND, JAMES BOND & HIS TOP TEN SONGS

By Marc S. Sanders

Recently I was asked to list what I consider to the Top Ten Songs from the James Bond film series produced under the EON production group.

To factor in this list with only my viewpoint as an authority constitutes the meaning behind each song in relation to the film it represents.  Songs are songs.  However, each song selected for a James Bond installment should have some direct correlation to the Agent 007 and/or the elements of its respective film.  Do the lyrics, tempo and rhythms work directly with the movie as a whole?  If they don’t then they need not be considered. 

For example, I like All Time High by Rita Coolidge for the Roger Moore film Octopussy.  However, to this day I cannot figure out why that song was selected for the film focusing on Cold War conspiracy with a hint of Alfred Hitchcock sensationalism and the titillation of alluring, skintight clad women ready to serve at the behest of the title character, with machine guns strapped over their shoulders and busty chests, and gorgeous hairdos right out of the glamorous times of early 1980s decadence.

I expect some readers may vent frustrations over some glaring omissions here. I did not rank a certain Beatle’s contribution to the series with Live And Let Die.  It’s likely a runner up, ranked number 11 on my list.  Why not higher?  Well, I have issues with Paul McCartney’s number.  His gorgeous voice is there for sure.  However, I feel it disrupts itself over the course of the song.  McCartney is offering up beautiful harmonies and then a cult like ritual composition interrupts the number also serving as a repetitive chorus.  Then it slows down for Paul to sing the next verse. I never understood why.  It breaks up a consistent trajectory.  As well, the lyrics lend nothing to the story or setting of the film (honestly, not one of my favorite Bond pictures).  Blaxploitation and voodoo supernatural tones occupy much of this film and McCartney is definitely not the poster boy for any of those themes.  Out of context of the film, I’m a strong advocate.  I just don’t feel it enhances the picture it is linked with.

To be an effective memorable song for a James Bond movie, the record should contain the chords from Monty Norman’s horns and bugles that declare Bond is here ready for action, danger, and sex.  The lyrics should describe the story or maybe the villain or simply 007 himself. 

And so, let’s begin…

10) You Only Live Twice (You Only Live Twice) – Nancy Sinatra’s entry in the Bond catalogue comes off like the soundtrack of your vacation to Asia.  You can almost hear it as you explore the continent.  It has a quiet hypnotic approach that works so well with the visual locales of Hong Kong and Japan where much of the adventure takes place.  It’s seductive and bewitching, allowing Bond to effectively place a woman under his spell, with permission as a male chauvinist during Sean Connery’s tenure with the role in the 1960s.

9) A View To A Kill (A View To A Kill) – Okay, my justification for it being on the list may not be consistent with what constitutes an appropriate James Bond song, but I’m allowed to break my own rules.  This is a film that rests at the bottom of my rankings.  However, who has ever forgotten the 1980’s introduction of 007 into the world of pop music, compliments of Duran Duran?  This is a far cry from the standard Shirley Bassey numbers of earlier Bond films, not to be found on the easy listening stations programmed on your radio.  Another song not directly related to film’s central theme of the criminal world existing within Silicon Valley.  Still, the rock song is entirely recognizable.  One of the best movie songs to come out of the 1980s, that featured numerous tunes from the likes of Kenny Loggins and Glenn Frey, for example.  Arguably one of Duran Duran’s most popular songs.

8) Another Way To Die (Quantum Of Solace) – While not a huge fan of the film, that does a poor job of hiding its flaws in story and construction, I cannot deny the single from Jack White and Alicia Keys.  White offers guitar riffs that sound dangerous and scary, like a fast-racing motorcycle equipped with machine guns firing at you.  When his vocals duet with Keys, the harmonies sound sexy and alluring like Bond would be with any of the women he meets, capable of seduction or maybe betrayal.  “A Bomb On The Table/A Woman Walking By/A Drop In The Water/A Look In Her Eye.”  These lyrics really don’t describe what is seen in the film, but they lend to the spy with a license to kill because of what he too often encounters on any of his missions.  The lyrics are chilling.  The music is treacherous; much like when Bond ritually walks into the center of the gun barrel pointing right at him at the beginning of most of the films in the series.  This song promised a better movie than we got from Quantum Of Solace.

7) Writing Is On The Wall (Spectre) – I thought all five songs from Daniel Craig’s time with the series were entirely fitting to the collective storyline of his interpretation with the character.  Spectre is a very personal film for Bond, as it reinvents the relationship he has with well-known arch villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Sam Smith has such a silky vocal to his Oscar winning song which comes off tragic for 007 as he has no choice but to revisit his past in order to accomplish his mission.  What does Blofeld mean personally to Bond?  Who will Bond have to meet up with, and what personal risks will he have to take in order to succeed?  Sam Smith’s song implies Bond was not ready for the fall, but the truth had to be met, nonetheless.

6) The Man With The Golden Gun (The Man With The Golden Gun) – I’m sorry but this film does not get enough recognition.  Neither does the song.  The theme is as devilishly entertaining as the title character’s fun house that pits James Bond in a climactic dual against Scaramenga played with wonderful glee by Christopher Lee.  While Lulu may be doing an obvious imitation of Shirley Bassey, I can’t deny the song’s recognizable musical tones from John Barry as the singer belts out how “No Hit Man Can Match Him” and “He’ll Shoot Anyone/With His Golden Gunnnnnnnn.”  With a song like this over the opening credits that follow after the character’s maniacal introduction in the opening scene, I have just been promised that 007 will come face to face with one of the most dangerous killers in the world, and it may in fact spell the end of James Bond.

5) Skyfall (Skyfall) – Daniel Craig’s films go for dramatic zeniths.  The film Skyfall certainly leaves you breathless on multiple occasions with the first time happening at the climax of the pre credit scene.  Bond has been shot, he falls from a great height and he’s presumed dead.  That hardly ever happens to 007.  Jump to the end of the film, and a personal loss occurs.  Adele’s Oscar winning song begins with a frightening declaration that “This Is The End/Hold Your Breath And Count To Ten.”  She is practically speaking to Bond himself of what’s to come from this point now that the world thinks you’re dead. Adele takes you on a narration easing you into the drama you’re about see over the next two hours. The tongue and cheek humor found especially in the days of Roger Moore may be long gone, but Craig’s interpretation of Ian Fleming’s “blunt instrument” is thankfully more serious and personal.  This is another perfect example that you will get your thrills from the super spy.  He’s just not as fancy free as he used to be, because the villains make it all the more personal.

4) No Time To Die (No Time To Die) – It may be the one song in the list that sums up James Bond’s relationship with a lover. That would be holdover, Madeliene Swann, from the prior film, Spectre.  Madeliene is the daughter of a former enemy of Bond that he just happens to fall in love with.  Billie Eilish hauntingly sings from the consciousness of 007.  “Fool Me Once/Fool Me Twice…You’ll Never See Me Cry/There’s Just No Time To Die.”  Early on, Bond has reason to suspect Madeliene has betrayed him, and he will not let it happen again because his career and mission and endgame is simply never to die by anyone else’s hand but his own.  Eilish’s song is a perfect wrap up to Daniel Craig’s characterization.  His 007 finds it hard to ever live peacefully and he will always have to keep his guard up.  If he will surrender to defeat, it is only going to be under his terms.  Madeliene, nor Blofeld, or anyone else will ever get the best of him.

3) Goldfinger (Goldfinger) – Shirley Bassey’s first of three contributions (so far) to the sixty-year-old series is her best.  She’s not singing about 007 though.  She’s celebrating one of the most memorable villains that Bond ever faced.  Auric Goldfinger is serious about his love for all things gold.  “He’s The Man/The Man With The Midas Touch.”  Wait for it, because there’s more.  “A Spider’s Touch.”  Deadly!  The fun thing about Goldfinger is that he kills just about anyone he encounters.  He’ll make his point with 007 that he’s not be trifled by suffocating his one-night stand and covering her entire body in paint, gold paint.  He happily lays down his plan for robbing Fort Knox of its entire gold supply to a bunch of hoodlum investors, but then moments later he gasses them all to death anyway.  This guy of immense wealth is proud of all he possesses and what he is capable of.  Rather than shoot Bond while he’s tied down to a table, Auric Goldfinger has the expectation of him to die by severing the spy in half with a laser beam beginning right at the “weapon” Bond carries everywhere between his thighs.  Shirley Bassey might have sung multiple times for the superspy, but in Goldfinger she’s sings from the sidelines of James Bond’s bad guy with unlimited resources.  Shirley practically implies that maybe you better sit this one out, James.

2) You Know My Name (Casino Royale) – Even if you reinvent the character, we are still going to know who you’re talking about.  Bond, James Bond.  In the opening moments of Daniel Craig’s first film, we get an overview of what constitutes Bond as an exclusive “Double O” agent for Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Then Chris Cornell offers a hard-edged rock interpretation of what it takes to live dangerously, where agents like Bond are not expected to carry a long-life span.  We might be meeting 007 for the first time all over again, but we certainly know the man with the license to kill.  However, do we know what it means to behave like him? “Arm Yourself Because No One Else Here Will Save You/The Odds Will Betray You And I Will Replace You/You Can’t Deny The Prize It May Never Fulfill You/It Longs To Kill You, Are You Willing To Die?/The Coldest Blood Runs Through My Veins/You Know My Name.”  To be the kind of killer who does not dwell on the carnage a man leaves behind requires lyrics like this.  James Bond has to be cold like that with no time to reflect on who he dispatches in the name of Queen and Country.

1) Nobody Does It Better (The Spy Who Loved Me) – Carly Simon’s song, orchestrated by Marvin Hamlisch, arrives at just the right moment in the film.  Bond has outrun KGB agents on skis.  Yet, he’s running out of snow to escape on.  A dangerous cliff is ahead.  When I first saw The Spy Who Loved Me, my five-year-old self wondered how he would ever get out of this scenario alive.  He leaps off the mountain into the great wide open, his skis fly off his boots and Bond is left to endlessly fall…that is until his parachute bearing the Union Jack appears and his recognizable theme song kicks in.  Then Carly Simon reminds us that “Nobody Does It Better/Makes Me Sad For The Rest/Nobody Does It Half As Good As You/Baby You’re The Best.”  Can’t disagree with you Carly.  Simon and Hamlisch are playful with this crooning number, and just as mischievous as Roger Moore approached the super spy. Regardless, it never negates any of the various interpretations that 007 has offered through the years.  In sixty years, nobody has been better at the spy game than James Bond.  It’s not even a matter of opinion anymore.  James Bond is the best.

What did you think?  Am I far off from what you believe are the best Bond numbers, or did I at least get it mostly right.  Share your thoughts in the comments.  It’ll be “For (Our) Eyes Only.”

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

By Marc S. Sanders

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull succeeds on so many levels of storytelling and construction. It stays true to form of its title character protagonist. Indy is not only a hero. He’s also a traveler of history. The film takes place in the year 1957, and director Steven Spielberg delivers visuals that reiterate the time, when the Cold War was on the horizon, and Nazi Germany was behind us. It’s time for the Russians to step up as the big bad.

David Koepp’s script really is quite brilliant as it never loses sight of the times with references to McCarthyism, communist red scare, and flying saucers and aliens directly inspired by the B movie serials of the decade. Even Shia LeBeouf portraying a sidekick to Indy is a model of Marlon Brando from The Wild One.

I’ve mentioned before how simply the silhouette of the famed archeologist with his fedora hat and bullwhip is as recognizable as Batman or Darth Vader or James Bond. Here, Spielberg uses the visual motif against a mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb test site, and later against a flying saucer. As noted earlier, Dr. Jones moves with time; truly living up to his famous phrase, “It’s not the years honey. It’s the mileage.”

Harrison Ford maintains the character quite well, still skeptical of what is not literal. He’s not prepared to believe in higher powers until he sees it for himself. Ford conveys Koepp’s interpretation very well.

It’s refreshing that he is paired up again with Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood (from Raiders), the best of Indy’s female companions. Their sparring remains natural. Allen folds back into her role quite comfortably.

Stalin’s top underling is dispatched with recovering a legendary Crystal Skull and revealing it’s true power. Master character actor Cate Blanchett makes for a great Russian bob haircut villain, with uniform physique. She’s smart but she’s got every fighting skill known to pose great threat.

An infamous scene involves Indy sheltering himself in a refrigerator to survive a nuclear blast. Majority despise this scene. The phrase “Nuke The Fridge” became almost as iconic as “Jump The Shark,” simply for the audacity of its imagination. After having witnessed the near-death escapes of his past adventures (parachuting from a plane in an inflatable raft, sliding under a speeding truck, becoming “a penitent man” to cross a cavern), what is so wrong with this moment? Heck, Spielberg knows it’s crazy which is why he offers a close up indicating the fridge is “lead lined.” The scene works because it holds true to Indiana Jones’ series of absurd survival.

Besides all of the periodic references, the set design of Kingdom… is spectacular. Looking at the final act of the film, we are treated to a column that opens itself up with ingenuity as sand must pour out of the column in order for the structure to open with a receding downward staircase. Then, there’s a beautiful open sesame moment before entering a circular throne room.

Another earlier moment stages a hidden chamber that is revealed on a large, stone, tilted disc. All of this collectively speaking is truly one of the best set pieces in all four of the Indy films.

A delightfully fun car/motorcycle chase on Indy’s college campus is great as well as there is jumping from bike to car and back to on to the bike before swerving into the library. The scenic background design has to be admired for showing protest signs to Communism on campus. The film never loses sight of where its story is set. Detractors of this film fail to recognize any of this.

Fans also took issue with LeBeouf. Not me. He’s got an adventurous fun side to him. The smart aleck way of Ford’s younger years, but not the same character background. He has fun with swinging from vines and sword fights, in the same vein of a mine car chase from a prior installment.

The story is moved by clues and maps and deciphering a welcome John Hurt who speaks in a gibberish of riddles that stem from a brainwash his character experiences. This is all good for a great pursuit. Nothing is easily revealed. Mayan writing needs to be interpreted; maps need to be read. Stories of legend need to be told. Indy needs to apply his professional knowledge to move forward through the Amazon to his final destination.

I’d argue that Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is one of the most misunderstood and divisive films of all time. People gave up on it too easily, I think. They reserved their approval because of either a ridiculous title (a great B movie title), or LeBeouf’s casting, or Ford’s age, or vine swinging and big ass red ants (a great monster horror scene by the way). I say those folks just didn’t get it and failed to recognize where all of this stemmed from. David Koepp, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were very aware of what to present. If I were them, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Again, it’s not the years. It’s the mileage.

FIGHT CLUB

By Marc S. Sanders

David Fincher’s Fight Club is a deliberately ugly and dreary film. It has to be to evoke the insomnia its narrator (Edward Norton) suffers from, as well as his lonely depression that offers no answers for his purpose to exist or to be loved by another person.

To alleviate his need for something fulfilling, the narrator resorts to attending support groups for men suffering from illnesses and debilitating diseases like testicular cancer. There he meets a former body builder named Bob (the singer Meat Loaf) who has developed floppy breasts after going through hormone therapy. Bob follows the processes of the self help group and embraces on to Norton’s character as a means of support; stuffing his face into Bob’s breasts. The narrator eventually becomes accustomed to this maternal practice and the ritual of attending these meetings as a regular process. However, he feels he is getting upstaged by Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a punk looking girl with dark eyeliner and wild jet-black hair.

Even though Marla and the narrator negotiate who attends what meetings and on what night, Norton meets another punk like reckless character known as Tyler Durdin (memorably played by Brad Pitt) who manufactures and sells soap but also edits film reels, sneakily inserting penis images into family films. Tyler also works as a waiter at a high-end restaurant where he proudly adds a little of “himself” to all the courses that are served.

The narrator only works at a boring desk job where his boss uses any opportunity to look down upon him and chastise him on his performance or appearance, but never recognizing anything further within his nature. The boss could care less about him. Naturally, the narrator becomes in awe of Tyler’s behavior. Tyler is a rebel and offers much more beyond Bob’s comfort. Tyler serves a purpose for the narrator to pursue.

When Tyler challenges the narrator to hit him as hard as he can it eventually leads to a new kind of gathering for both of them, a support group known as Fight Club. Men from all over soon gather underground to partake of letting out their aggressions with bare knuckle fists and wrestling. Anyone attending gets a therapeutic vibe from bleeding and bruising themselves upon one another. The narrator certainly feels better.

Going a step further leads Tyler and the narrator to fight back against a system of order and capitalism. Their philosophy picks up traction and soon a form of revolution is taking place across the entire country. Somehow, the narrator is taken off guard by this new belief system.

There’s a lot to consider and question in Fight Club, though I’m not sure I care for the film as a whole to debate its message. Sometimes it feels like it’s not moving anywhere. Norton’s character learns things about his own consciousness and need to falsely subject himself as a cancer survivor or as an underground brawler because he has nothing else really going for him. I get that, but why should I care or like it?

Tyler Durdin resides in a broken down house on the other end of the city that is leaking from every pipe and it’s electricity could ignite another fire that maybe this decrepit dwelling survived once before. Tyler is happy with his home and happy to share it with the narrator as well as Marla whom he has endless sex with. Tyler doesn’t want the fancy trappings. It’s revolting to even possess such materialism and suck off the tit of a capitalist regime. With the narrator at his side, he encourages a fight against the power of commercialism and wealth. Find a way to destroy the structures of what the country has built itself into, perhaps.

That’s the message of Fight Club. I just can’t lay claim that I cared for the execution of the revolt. I’m supposed to laugh at Tyler’s antics at times like when he steals the gross liquid fat from liposuction patients to manufacture the soap he sells. Yes, we get a moment where the bags of fat leak and splatter all over the place. It was just never amusing for me. I found no symbolism in this passage. It’s just absolutely disgusting. When Tyler happily pisses in someone’s soup, I don’t think it’s funny either. I don’t like Tyler. I don’t envy him or want to be him. I don’t find anything to cheer for with him. I’ve got more admiration for John Bender in The Breakfast Club than I do for Tyler Durdin. I might respect what he stands for to a degree as we are a culture brainwashed by advertising and commercialism. I just don’t care for the actions taken by this so-called martyr on behalf of the self-described unfortunates like Norton’s narrator.

I also find it ironic and quite hypocritical that Fincher’s film is a call to stand up to materialism and commercialism and yet the cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, arguably one of the biggest box office stars of the last 30 years, complete with his name above the title and his image front and center ahead of Edward Norton’s on the film posters that promote the film. Pitt is also the guy you see first, last and all over the middle of any of the film’s trailers and advertisements.

Now tell me, is that not a contradiction in terms?

BATMAN RETURNS

By Marc S. Sanders

I’ve always been a little hot and cold with Tim Burton’s films.  They are beautifully constructed in set and costume design, always well cast with exceptional talent and composer Danny Elfman’s music accompanies perfectly with Burton’s wide collection of social misfits and altogether celebrated weird material.  Still, more often than not, I leave Burton’s movies feeling less fulfilled than I want. Tim Burton’s one sequel film to date, Batman Returns, is one such example. 

To commemorate the annual Batman Day, I opted to watch Burton’s return to the murkiest of comic book locales, Gotham City, where Michael Keaton reprised the role of billionaire Bruce Wayne who dons the costume of The Dark Knight.  This time the villains of the week are the grotesque Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the sexy, dominatrix like Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). 

Penguin resurfaces from the sewers of Gotham 33 years after his parents abandoned him as an infant, depositing him into the city reservoir in a bassinet to be raised by…you guessed it…penguins.  (Schools of penguins reside in the city sewers???? I guess it’s better than rats.)  Nerdy and mousy Selina Kyle is raised from the dead by the gnawing and licking of random alley cats to take on a warrior persona for Catwoman.  How exactly a feline resurrection works in either myth or science is never explored.  I guess I just have to go with it.  The manipulator behind these villains’ actions is a wealthy industrialist named Max Shreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken.  I was never sure of his stake here.  I’m only supposed to understand that he’s unlikable on the surface and he is not good for Gotham. 

I love all these actors.  I love them in these roles.  I do not love the script doled out for them though, which serves none of them well.

Batman Returns is best when the Batmobile or the Bat Glider is on screen.  They are awesome pieces of hardware to see in action as much as any tripped-up James Bond vehicle.  However, these are props.  They don’t speak, or laugh, or cry, or get angry.  Therefore, they don’t drive or develop a story.  When Luke Skywalker pilots an X-Wing Fighter, I care about the pilot.  The pilot speaks for the vehicle.  Batman doesn’t speak for the Batmobile. 

It’s ironic that the title character has only one sentence of dialogue in the first 30 minutes of this two-hour film.  There’s no dynamic to Batman or Bruce Wayne.  Keaton looks great sitting by his fireplace in deep thought or watching his television as the bat signal beams upon him.  He stands, and then when we see him next, he’s sitting in his bat car in full horned head regalia.  Otherwise, the Batman character is a prop to be used for scapegoat tactics by Penguin, Schreck and Catwoman, or he’s present to hurl a bat gadget, or throw a stiff-arm punch.  He doesn’t even do much of that stuff, anyway.  In Batman Returns, I learn nothing new about Batman or Bruce Wayne or his crusade to protect Gotham City.

Keaton shares one good scene in the film with Michelle Pfeiffer. It may be the one scene with a story to it as the two are dressed down from their comic book evening wear to dance slowly at a masquerade Christmas ball where they gradually realize who they are when they are not with one another.  Of course, we know this should be so obvious, yet a rule of thumb for comic book literature is not to realize what’s right under your nose.  A nice touch to this scene is having Keaton and Pfeiffer be the only guests not wearing a mask while everyone else is.  Batman and Catwoman have in fact dressed up as someone else for the costume party.  Very ironic and almost clever.

Too much material is given to Walken as the conniving Max Shreck.  Walken performs well, but just like his Bond bad guy in A View To A Kill, he belongs in a different movie.  The Schreck character lends nothing to this Batman adventure.  Who’s interested in this guy?  McDonalds and the other merchandising companies could even see how unattractive this character is.  So, why couldn’t Tim Burton or his writers and producers?  I’ll pay you a gazillion dollars for your rare, never manufactured Max Schreck action figure.  Yet, the bland script from Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm arguably provides the most dialogue to this guy.  You’ve got Batman, Penguin, Catwoman, even Alfred the butler and Commissioner Gordon, and yet this grey-haired guy with a wolf like pompadour in a bland, black business suit is hijacking a Batman movie.  Makes no sense.  Much of Batman Returns is made with cutting room floor material taped together featuring an unwanted Christopher Walken.

Who else is better to play The Penguin than Danny DeVito?  No one!  So, it is disappointing when the squat actor has nothing to do.  A seemingly inspired storyline from the campy Adam West TV series, and maybe a handful of comics, have him running for Mayor of Gotham.  A good start, but then the script does nothing remotely interesting with it, even though this stuff sells itself.  Where’s the political jokes to parallel the campaign? Where’s the ridiculous podium debates?  Imagine Penguin kissing little old ladies and holding babies while on a campaign trail.  None of that happens here.  You have outstanding talent from DeVito and yet all he’s left to do is ride around in a duck boat, spit out black and green sludge goo, and scream frustrations in a groggy, ear-piercing bellow on more than a couple of occasions. Unlike Jack Nicholson before him, DeVito is abandoned to play scenes with no dialogue while he chomps on raw fish or screams for the sake of screaming. 

An error in judgement was layering the actor in ugly makeup and unattractive costume wear.  Usually, DeVito is seen wearing a stained and damp white footy pajama suit with black dental pieces and very black eyeshadow on a whited out facial texture with a giant hook nose.  This is Danny DeVito.  He already looks like The Penguin.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  The only charming accessories are his top hat and his collection of umbrellas (shooting fire or bullets or flicking out knives) that serve as exclamation points on dialogue when a jokey punchline could not be considered with even just a smidgen of effort from the writers.  The umbrellas were more expressive than the guy operating them, and yet even they were hardly used in any action scenes.

Batman Returns has some sloppy scene cuts as well.  A scene will appear with Catwoman skipping through a store, then it’ll jump to Batman punching out a few circus clowns, then the two meeting up on a rooftop somehow.  Why, where and how did this all happen?  The math doesn’t add up.  Penguin will somehow appear within this stitchery too.  For what reason?  Three movies are happening here and none of them are communicating with one another.

Films like the original Batman, or Edward Scissorhands or even Pee Wee’s Big Adventure carry the weirdo trademark of Tim Burton.  I know what I’m getting when I turn on almost any one of his films.  (Ed Wood being the surprising, and pleasing biographical exception.)  These are gorgeous, macabre films to look at, whether they are dimly lit or staged in deliberately bright and gaudy rainbow colors.  Yet, there are often scenes or moments that lack that hook that carries you from the exposition to the acclimation I normally get from the universe on screen before my eyes.  Batman Returns especially lacks that transition. 

Because the film looks so good, it is not the worst of the Dark Knight’s many films.  Yet, it is an uninspired and disappointing piece.  Any film with such storied and legendary characters as these is going to be a big letdown if they are given nothing to do.  Why, oh why, did they give almost all of the lines to the boring guy in the business suit?  If I wanted to entertain myself with an accountant, all I needed to do was sit in the lobby of an H & R Block.

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, THE BOURNE LEGACY, JASON BOURNE

By Marc S. Sanders

Sometimes the same old thing is all we want, right?  It’s like comfort food.  That’s what the Jason Bourne films offer.  The first time (The Bourne Identity) it is original.  The second time (The Bourne Supremacy) it is familiar.  The third time (The Bourne Ultimatum) it is what we expect.  When you get to the fourth and fifth time (The Bourne Legacy and Jason Bourne), well then perhaps you’ve overstayed your welcome.

The second and third films in the Matt Damon action series function as one long four-hour film.  They are absolutely gripping in high octane, fast cut editing, pulse pounding music from James Newton Howard, and taut direction from Paul Greengrass.  They work because at least two thirds of the material is shown through the eyes of the former assassin Jason Bourne who is trying to learn of his past and who he worked for and why.  Plus, though he may hide deep undercover on the other side of the world in places like populated India, he only resurfaces when he discovers someone is trying to kill him.

The other third of these two pictures function on the other side of the coin with clandestine departments within the CIA who only consider Bourne being alive as a threat to the integrity of their black operations.  He must be eliminated.  There are great acting scenes with Joan Allen first up against an intimidating Brian Cox, and later she’s going toe to toe with David Strathairn.  If you are not part of the chase for Bourne, then you are engrossed in the cause these three supporting players offer with government politics and debate.  With each passing film, it’s an old, grey haired white gentleman in a suit who is insistent on eliminating Bourne and anyone who he associates with.  This started with Chris Cooper in the first film followed by Brian Cox (my favorite) over to David Strathairn.  The baton is then passed to Albert Finney.  A new film moves over to Edward Norton and then Tommy Lee Jones.  Scott Glenn and Stacy Keach are in the recipe too, but they are not as prominent.  All these guys start to look alike and when you watch the films in succession, one after the other, like I recently did, you start to question when this actor and this actor entered the fold.  Best way to describe it is that it is a ladder climb.  There was one guy in charge, then another above him and so on.

The appreciation for the Bourne series comes mostly from its action and the absolute cleverness of its hero.  Jason Bourne functions with ease about staying one step ahead of those trying to kill him.  They think they have a lead on him, but in reality, he has the lead on them.  Do you know how satisfying it is when he calls these people to talk to them and they play dumb? Jason will simply say “If you were in your office right now, then we would be having this conversation face to face.”  Moments like this are what gets an audience to clap and cheer.  The old white guy has been duped.

The action works because, once again I lay claim to the lack of CGI.  So, the overabundance of car chases seems nerve wracking like they are supposed to.  That door on that car is actually getting bashed in.  That taxi cab is really getting t-boned and turning into a 360 tailspin.  Jason can grab a seatbelt, lie down on his side and when the car careens over the barrier onto the landing fifty below, upside down, I’ll believe he gets out with only just a slight limp and a dribble of blood on his brow.  Only Jason Bourne can drag a wrecked rear bumper on a stolen police car through a busy Times Square and bash an SUV into a concrete barrier.

Fight scenes are not just fight scenes in the Bourne films.  It’s not just fists and punches and karate kicks.  Creatively speaking, the films construct their fight scenes to have the hero arm himself with a ball point pen or a magazine that’s wrapped up ready to wallop an opponent in the nose.  I’ll never forget when my colleague Miguel and I saw Ultimatum in the theatres and witnessed Jason punching a book into the face of a dangerous bad guy.  How many times have you seen a guy get punched in the face?  How many times have a seen a guy punch a book into the face of another guy?  There’s a difference. 

Matt Damon has been quoted as saying he believes the Bourne films carried the least amount of dialogue for him to memorize.  Yeah.  That’s likely true.  These films are visual feasts.  They rely on watching Damon move.  They are paced by how he walks, drives a car or tinkers with props.  Even how he listens and observes move with a kinetic progress. 

The locales are spectacular, spanning the globe from India, to Russia, to London, to Morocco, to the Philippines, and on to New York City and Las Vegas.  Following the first film, Paul Greengrass directed three of the next four.  (Writer Tony Gilroy directed the fourth film, The Bourne Legacy with Jeremy Renner taking the lead while Damon’s character was only talked about.) Each film takes every advantage of the atmosphere, using the overpopulated extras as obstacles and means to hide and weave away from the antogonists while on foot, behind a steering wheel or saddled upon a motorcycle.  Greengrass practically invents the concept of putting the viewer so much within the environment, you can almost smell the diesel or the food trucks within the area.  Zoom in overhead shots offer quick glances of the playground and traffic we are engrossed in.  Approximately twenty-five minutes within the center of The Bourne Ultimatum go by with no dialogue as Jason Bourne pursues a bad guy through a labyrinth of apartment tenements and rooftops, while the bad guy pursues actor Julia Stiles.  Finally, when all three catch up to one another, with a leap through a window, do you let out the deep breath you never realized you were holding on to. 

The first three films in the series (Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum) work as a tight trilogy.  Each film ends with hanging threads to consider and lend to the next film.  By the time Ultimatum concludes, you feel as if all that needed to be told has been covered.  The next two (Legacy and Jason Bourne) function as cash grabs for the studio.  Legacy is entertaining and it boasts a good cast with Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz trying to outrun the government adversaries.  It hinges on operating as parallel material that occurs in the prior Damon installment.  While Jason Bourne is being pursued, this is happening over here.  It’s not unwatchable, but it is also truly unnecessary as it doesn’t advance the universe of the series at all.  A thrilling motorcycle chase closes out the film, but it’s a retread of what we’ve seen before.  It gets old quickly.  The film demonstrates that guys like Jason are trained to become dependent on drug enhancements for their highly trained arts of warfare and instinct.  Renner’s character is just another kind of Jason Bourne.  I was more impressed when I thought Jason was just a highly skilled fast learner to all that he’s capable of.  If you tell me blue and green pills lend to what he’s capable of, well then, he’s not much of a superhero in my eyes anymore.

With the final film, Jason Bourne, Greengrass returned to the director’s chair and Damon agreed to come back (paycheck had to be right, I’m sure), though he was significantly greyer and older than his prior films.  It was a weak return.  Just when we think Bourne has learned everything he needed to know and he could now live comfortably underground as a street brawler for bucks, he is informed that his deceased father knew and did some things for these secret agencies that put Jason on this path of special operations.  It doesn’t hold much weight and the payoff is nothing special.  Another car chase occurs in Vegas that appears nearly shot for shot similar to what we already saw in Damon’s prior installments. 

I wrote in an earlier review of The Bourne Identity, that Matt Damon works so well in the role because he’s such an unexpected surprise.  He’s not the muscle guy like Stallone or Schwarzenegger.  He comes off common.  In the first three films, he’s simply a kid.  When you place him in action or see how he gets the drop on a bad guy who is surveilling him, it is so satisfying.  The Bourne films work best with the locales they choose to shoot from.  Bourne will spy on his pursuers from a rooftop building across the street from where they are.  This is inventive filmmaking not just found in the pages of the script.  Paul Greengrass strategically shoots his players.  Director Doug Liman planted the seeds for this series’ potential (The Bourne Identity), very loosely based on the Robert Ludlum novels with creative adaptations from Tony Gilroy, primarily.   Greengrass enhanced the characters and their motivations by use of scenic locales, skillful shaky cameras to make it look like the audience is running at the same pace of Bourne and his adversaries, and quick cut, real time editing.  He applied this approach to his 9/11 film United 93.  The last two films are good even if they seemingly peter out the series, but overall, the four sequels hold up very well. 

If you’re asking, the best of the series is The Bourne Ultimatum, followed very closely by The Bourne Supremacy.  Either way, no matter which film you’re watching, you’re in for a good time when Jason Bourne shows up on the grid.

SKYSCRAPER

By Marc S. Sanders

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson helms a film stuffed with beefcake, gusto, an artificial leg, and LOTS OF DUCT TAPE. Even his world-famous chest tattoo makes a cameo.

Skyscraper is his latest action piece, and it makes no bones about how absurd its set pieces and stunts are.  This is a self-aware picture; self-aware of all its UN-likelihood.  It has to be.  

The writer of this piece, that is not a Die Hard ripoff, is Rawson Marshall Thurber (rolls off the tongue like Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese) is also the director.  I can almost promise this guy wrote this script in airport terminals and secluded library corners with his iPad knowing how out of control this hostage/burning building film would be and just laughed hysterically, like a mad scientist, as he typed.  Heck, he probably took his old GI Joes out of the shoe box and used them to storyboard on the tall oak tree in his backyard.  This guy should be given all jobs first considered for Michael Bay.  He knows the audience will roll their eyes at everything they are seeing, and he goes even crazier with the next set piece.  

MILD SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE TRAILERS:

It’s not enough that Johnson, with an artificial leg, can climb a sky high crane while a skyscraper (hence the title) blazes to pieces next to him.  He then makes a ridiculous leap from said crane to said skyscraper through a broken window.  What?!?!? It could happen!!!!! Same as you can put sticky duct tape on your hands and shoes, and climb the outside of the building with the same artificial leg, like Spider-Man.

So, what do you think reader? Did I like Skyscraper?  You bet I did.  The edits are sharp.  I know The Rock isn’t going to perish, but when his hand slips from a ledge, you bet I jumped.  I laughed with such glee at each moment of ridiculous suspense. I loved the badassery of Neve Campbell playing the reverse of a distressed damsel wife to Johnson.  

On top of all that, this skyscraper, located in Hong Kong, and reportedly 5 times the size of the Empire State Building, is a gargantuan setting of the best technology.  Known as The Pearl, this is one super cool building of over 220 floors plus a fun house hall of mirrors dome at the top.  How that dome helps the world or even just the building beats the hell outta me.  It’s just amazingly cool and that’s why it’s there. 

So yes!!!!  Go see Skyscraper. Throw your logic and snobby intolerance for the absurd off the roof and have a great time at the movies.