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.

RESERVOIR DOGS

By Marc S. Sanders

The first time I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, I was flabbergasted by the inventiveness of the twists present within the simplicity of its low budget filmmaking.  As a community theatre actor, I could see there were many moments that were executed as if they were stage performances.  Tarantino just happened to record it all live on camera. Amid the bloody gore, there were some surprises to the script that I never saw coming even if they were plain as day.  Much like The Usual Suspects or The Shawshank Redemption where the unexpected is offered, and it is seemingly obvious despite no signs of early detection, I was entertained.  However, thirty years later, my values have evolved since the release of Tarantino’s first film.  You gotta show me more than just circumstances and contrived set pieces.

As director and writer of the movie, Tarantino plays puppet master to a collection of criminals.  Six of them are dressed uniformly in black suits and ties and they only know one another by a moniker nickname of “Mister” followed by a color.  These are no ordinary criminals though.  Unlike other films, they don’t just talk about the stretch they had in prison or a heist they pulled off at one time.  These guys debate the artistic merits of Madonna’s Like A Virgin and if she went down hill following her True Blue album.  One of them, even has an opinion contrary to the others about tipping a waitress at a diner.  He doesn’t believe in it.  United, the others try to tell him how wrong he is, but he has higher standards for excellence in table service.  It’s deliberately ridiculous!  Clint Eastwood never talked about any of this.  Not even Newman or Redford.  Lee Marvin?  Charles Bronson?  Forget it!  (Jack Nicholson may be the exception in Five Easy Pieces, but that character wasn’t a criminal.) Quentin Tarantino, however, believes that even low-level hoods have a viewpoint on anything from pop culture to societal expectations.

These six guys have been assembled by a kingpin named Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his husky, bruiser son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) to carry out a diamond robbery.  The film opens with these conversations over breakfast and then jumps to the aftermath where Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is bleeding to death in the back seat while Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is high tailing it away.  When they get to their rendezvous warehouse, eventually Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrive and the strangers among themselves contemplate if they were set up by one of their own since the police were already waiting for the robbery to take place.  Is one of them a cop or a rat?  Occasionally, Tarantino cuts away from this one warehouse setting to flashback to how some of these guys came to be recruited for the heist.

The scenario of Reservoir Dogs is creative.  It demonstrates that there is no honor among thieves.  Much like Tarantino’s films to come afterwards, his characters are thin and two dimensional.  That works in pictures like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Here, I didn’t embrace that aspect.  Reservoir Dogs seems to move in a direction of the Clue board game.  I know nothing about Professor Plum or Colonel Mustard’s history.  I just need to determine if one of them did it with the candlestick in the Billiard Room.  In Tarantino’s film, I just need to put a blindfold on and take a shot in the dark of who the rat among the gang is.  That’s all.  It’s just circumstantial. 

I appreciate how unique these criminals are with their mundane conversations and their cool swagger, but there’s nothing much beyond that.  Tarantino might have known that too.  He only has one question to answer before the end of the movie.  In between, to fatten up the length of the film, he incorporates a savage torture scene on a cop that Mr. Blonde takes hostage.  It’s memorable, but what does the scene really serve?  What do I take away from watching Michael Madsen’s cool, strutted character hacking off a man’s ear and dousing him in gasoline, while Stealer Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You plays on the radio?

The seeds of Tarantino’s brand were definitely showing in his first film, an independent project that luckily Harvey Keitel had enough faith in to help finance its shoestring budget.  The black suits became usual for Tarantino’s films along with pop rock of the seventies for a soundtrack.  Action scenes of a Lethal Weapon flavor have never been the director’s choice.  Rather, quick shots of gunfire followed by cutaway edits to the next talking scenes are his narrative.   It all shows here.  It just wasn’t as well rounded as it came to be in his seminal film, Pulp Fiction

The best acting comes from Tim Roth as Mr. Orange.  The character is given a flashback moment for how he’s brought into the gang. It is intriguing enough to be a movie of its own.  I wanted more from this guy’s story, because of Roth’s performance.  As well, for most of the film he’s bleeding his guts out from a gunshot wound in the stomach.  His hysteria is contrary to most other bad guys who get shot in the movies.  Mr. Orange suddenly doesn’t look so tough.  He’s crying like a baby and begs his closest teammate, Mr. White, to drop him off at the hospital.  He even tells Mr. White “God bless you for what you’re doing for me.”  Lee Marvin or Jimmy Cagney would never say that.  For a tough guy low level hood, this is not a cliché gangster who laughs at the face of death.  It’s imagination that thinks outside the box.  Forgive the intended pun, but Mr. Orange may be one of Tarantino’s most colorful characters.  I just wanted more from the guy.

These guys may be intentionally corny in their conversations. They may be super cool with their sunglasses and curse word laced dialogue.  However, that only goes so far before it looks like an ad for the Gap in the 1990s.  Beyond what the film shows with the Mr. Orange character, there had to be more depth.  

What Reservoir Dogs lacks turns me towards a mixed review for the film.  Still, I saw the movie before Pulp Fiction ever came out and I recall way back then that this Quentin Tarantino fellow has got something special brewing.  I couldn’t wait to see what was coming next, and I wasn’t disappointed.

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.

CAMP (2003)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Graff
Cast: Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin De Jesus, and introducing Anna Kendrick
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 64% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch an Early Film of a Famous Actor or Actress”

PLOT: Teen drama enthusiasts attend a summer drama camp and perform in several productions while dealing with an alcoholic musical director and their own messy lives.


Todd Graff’s film Camp plays like Meatballs [1979] crossed with Waiting for Guffman [1996].

A bunch of theatre-geek teens attend Camp Ovation, a summer drama camp where the campers rehearse and perform a different show every two weeks.  And I’m not talking Aladdin Jr. or Annie.  Among this camp’s productions are Follies, Promises Promises, and a color-blind presentation of Dreamgirls.  (It’s exactly as weird as it sounds.)  And the camp’s choreographer is Savion Glover, who is given exactly one scene with spoken lines.  Alas.

A brief prologue introduces the main characters, including Michael (Robin de Jesus), a gay boy who gets beaten up by classmates when he attends his junior prom in full drag.  Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is a plain-but-pretty girl with a self-image problem exacerbated by the fact she has to beg her brother to be her date to her own prom.  The appropriately-named Vlad (Daniel Letterle) is a handsome young man who doesn’t seem to have any overt personal problems.  At his camp audition, when he accompanies himself on guitar while crooning “Wild Horses”, one of the camp counselors is beside herself: “An honest-to-God STRAIGHT boy!”

There’s also the introduction of a mousy young lady named Fritzi, played by a 16-year-old Anna Kendrick in her film debut.  We all know how attractive she is in real life, but when we first meet her, she is in complete “Princess Diaries” mode: long straggly hair, flannel skirt, and acting as personal flunky for Jill, the blond camp floozy who doesn’t let anyone forget how pretty and talented she is.

Vlad is the eye of the storm at Camp Ovation.  Ellen is attracted to him, Jill wants to make out with him, Michael is burning to know if he’s gay or straight, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.  He’s also an emotional demon-child, an incurable flirt in both directions, so everyone is off-center around him.  That’s the “A” story.

One of the flaws of Camp is that there are one too many “B” stories.  Maybe two too many.  There’s Bert Hanley, who composed a musical decades ago that is still performed today, but who has not written anything since.  He’s coming in to assist with the camp’s productions, but things look grim when he shows up two days late, drunk, and with a suitcase full of booze bottles.

There’s Michael’s ongoing issues with getting his unsupportive parents to attend one of the camp’s performances.  One of the movie’s high points occurs when Michael is performing in Romeo and Juliet, sees the empty chairs in the audience where his parents are supposed to be, and launches into his own interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale.  Bernstein and Sondheim would have approved.

There’s a hilarious subplot that is never fully explored where the camp introduces a sports counselor.  At a drama camp.  This bit is granted two brief scenes, then never heard from again.  Alas.

There’s Jenna, a young girl whose parents wanted her to attend “fat camp” instead of drama camp, so they compromised: Jenna will attend Camp Ovation with her jaws wired shut.  I will leave it up to you to discover how she performs onstage through clenched teeth.  (This subplot does get a very satisfying resolution by movie’s end, it must be said.)

Most of these subplots are good enough to support an entire movie by themselves.  In Camp, however, you get a little whiplash going from comedy to drama to teen angst to revenge back to comedy to performance and so on and so on.  While watching it again, I noticed more than ever how many times the editing seemed to be working around chunks of dialogue that probably had to be cut for time.  Somewhere out there is Todd Graff’s 3-hour director’s cut of this movie, in which every story is given enough time to breathe, expand, and evolve.

So…why do I give this movie an 8/10 rating with so much not going for it?  Purely personal reasons.

Camp is a movie about theatre geeks, made by theatre geeks, for theatre geeks.  The film’s director, Todd Graff – who coincidentally played “Hippy” in The Abyss [1989] – was a drama camp counselor himself, and the film is loosely based on his experiences.  There is virtually zero crossover appeal for this film.  Near the beginning of the film, Fritzi is trying to jog Jill’s memory where they’ve met before: “We were in Night Mother last summer, remember?”  That joke only lands if you know how many people are in the cast of Night Mother, and what the plot is, and how ludicrous it is to imagine that show being performed at a summer camp.

For all his shortcomings, Vlad has a scene that speaks directly to me.  He confesses to Michael that he has OCD.  Without medication, he counts the letters in the words in people’s sentences.  (I count syllables.)  He talks about how his affliction is “always there.”  But when he’s performing onstage…it’s not.  Not only does that speak to me directly regarding OCD, it’s also a metaphor for anyone who has felt like an outsider for some reason or another.  Offstage, you might have self-image problems or obsessive behavior or shyness.  Onstage, those things magically fall away.  I don’t use that term lightly: “magically.”  I don’t know how else to describe what happens in that boundary between offstage and onstage.  Anyway, that’s cool to me, personally.

The movie has a suitable climax, but for me, the real centerpiece of the movie comes when a group of the kids and some of the adult band members meet in secret to rehearse and perform a song that Bert Hanley (remember him from earlier?) wrote but never published.  As they perform, the cynical Hanley overhears it and struggles with himself whether to let them play or to walk in and stop the performance.  It’s a cliched moment, to be sure, but the song itself is rousing and borderline inspirational, and when the scene’s payoff occurs, it’s almost cheer-worthy.

And let’s not forget what happens between Fritzi and Jill.  After some harsh words are said, Fritzi exacts her revenge and performs a show-stopping number from a Sondheim musical.  It’s here where Anna Kendrick’s screen and stage presence are both on full display.  For years afterward, Penni and I would see her in other movies and recognize her based solely on her performance in this movie, and particularly this scene.  (Of course, we couldn’t remember her name for a while…she was always “that girl from Camp.”  It wasn’t until after she appeared in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010] that her name finally stuck.)

And, of course, there’s that cameo from a surprise audience member at the camp’s final production.  (Hint: their car’s license plate reads 4UM.)

Camp may not have the name-recognition of so many other teen comedies, but this one speaks to me directly.  I’m not any one of those kids at this camp, but there’s a part of me in all of them.  I loved the musical numbers.  I enjoyed the theatrical in-jokes.  (“There’s this new thing called ‘drums,’ you’ll love it.”)  And maybe there’s also a part of me that wishes I had attended one of these camps in the summer instead of Bible camp two years in a row.  Just sayin’.

POLTERGEIST (1982)

By Marc S. Sanders

The original Poltergeist holds together based only upon its visual imagination.  The characters?  Well, they’re pretty thin to me. 

The Freeling family are JoBeth Williams and Craig T Nelson as mom and dad, with a teen daughter (Dominique Dunne), a preteen son (Oliver Robins) and an angelic five-year-old girl named Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) who speaks to the “tv people” through the white noise channel in the middle of the night.  Following odd occurrences that include unexplainable trickery from the kitchen chairs, a monstrous oak tree comes alive during a violent thunderstorm ready to consume the boy, while little Carol Anne is abducted by her closet into another realm that “exists” somewhere within the suburban house.

Mom and dad recruit help from ghost whisperers to uncover the mysteries that reside in the home and hope to rescue Carol Anne.  Beatrice Straight is the leading scientist of this team.  She introduces dialogue that says their home might be not be so much haunted as it is consumed by a “poltergeist.”  That little nugget to ponder stops there though, and is never explored further.   Who cares, actually?  Poltergeist!  Haunting!  Tomato! TomAto!  The piano is still moving by itself, and the toys are still floating around the children’s room.  Since the unexplainable can never be explained, a psychic is brought in, perfectly played by Zelda Rubinstein as a withered old lady with a kinship for the supernatural.  She knows how mom and dad should direct Carol Anne back to their dimension, and has a pretty good idea how they need to enter the other realm and physically rescue her.

Watching Tobe Hooper’s classic haunted house film from 1982 (rumored to primarily be directed by producer/writer Steven Spielberg), almost feels like I’m touring a warehouse of monster creations at a movie studio with all the lights turned on.  Most of the inventions offer little depth or curiosity.  I could care less about any of the characters like the parents and three kids that make up the Freeling family, or the squat psychic who enters the second half of the picture.  Beatrice Straight is an interesting actress with a humorous shiver and terrified whisper.  She leads two ghost hunter assistants who lack the speak to talk with researched authority.  I run down this list though, and all I get from the movie is an arts and crafts display of the dazzling and grotesque creations spawned from the imaginations of Industrial Light and Magic.  The artistry is to be admired.  Yet, I question if anything I saw ever served a story. 

I don’t watch Poltergeist as often as others I know, simply to avoid experiencing the terrorizing clown puppet that dons a wicked tooth like expression and strangles the young boy.  Still very effective.  Coffins burst from the muddy swimming pool to pour out skeletons upon a screaming JoBeth Williams.  A ghostly white phantom guards the door to the children’s room and the closet entrance becomes a gaping, hellish monster mouth ready to swallow what it inhales.  Raw meat crawls across the kitchen counter.  A chicken leg turns into maggots and let’s not forget about the guy who hallucinates in front of mirror while pealing the skin off his face.  These are just lists!  Lists of scary things to do.   

Poltergeist is a simplistic fun house of haunts.  Nothing further.  I appreciate that only to a degree, however.  I wanted more.  An explanation is given for these occurrences in a tiny exchange of dialogue during the terrifying climax.  Beyond that, there is nothing I can say about these characters or what they stand for.  The kids toss cereal at each other at the breakfast table, and the parents smoke pot in bed, but there’s really no affection, or conversely, animosity shared among the family members.

If I were to compare Poltergeist to other fright fests like Hitchcock’s The Birds or even the original Predator or Alien, I would undoubtedly say those are superior films because beyond the monsters that terrorize the characters there’s also room for mistrust and paranoia among the players.  There’s time to devote towards care that those characters may have for one another.  A suburban mom is seemingly expected to want to be reunited with her little girl.  That’s a give in.  It’s standard.  Completely apparent in every way.  Couldn’t some competition from mom and dad come into play though?  Some blame pointing tossed about for example?

I guess I get a little bored with Poltergeist because it doesn’t stop to acknowledge the value of its cast of characters.  There are only a few moments of suspense that come upon me like when I’m trying to figure out where the scary clown puppet went off to.  Another terrifying moment is watching JoBeth Williams hustle as fast as she can to her children’s room while the hallway seems to stretch the bedroom door further and further away from her.  These are all things to look at though.  These are not moments that I connect with emotionally.

Some close friends of mine absolutely love this movie.  They can’t get enough of it.  They recite the lines.  They get caught up in the supposed “Poltergeist Curse.”  They watch all of the making of documentaries and return to the film for the nostalgia.  For me though, I never felt an intimacy with the mystery, or the family being victimized.  On that level, it’s almost on the same plane as a disposable Jason or Freddy movie.  I’d like to shed at least one tear before that teen gets their head chopped off, or the screaming kid gets eaten by the tree trunk.

THE LITTLE MERMAID

By Marc S. Sanders

What I hearken back to most when I watch The Little Mermaid is my junior year of high school in 1989.  If you were around at that time, then maybe you realized how much of an impact the characters of Ariel, Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle and Ursula The Sea Witch had on kids, but teen pop culture as well.  Batman was big that year.  Disney’s underwater, romantic, musical adventure was at least as large.  Driving home from school, everyone I knew were singing along to celebrated numbers like Kiss The Girl, Les Poisson, Under The Sea and Part Of Your World.  My drama class couldn’t get enough of Poor Unfortunate Souls.  Oh, how overdramatic we would get in Mr. Locklair’s class while emulating Pat Carroll.  I still harmonize Ariel surrendering her voice.  Yes!  I can hold the tune!!!!  There is no denying The Little Mermaid cast a spell over the student body at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida.

The Little Mermaid is an important entry in the Disney lexicon.  Disney films were considered substandard, tired and stale before this release.  However, the adored fable based upon a story from Hans Christian Anderson awakened something that still carries on.  The music within the film from beloved writers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were delivered like Broadway showstoppers.  The quality of the songs was elevated with gorgeous calypso and reggae harmonies, and vocal characterizations as colorful as the underwater life depicted on screen.

Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the title character who dreams of what life is like above the surface.  Her father, King Triton, strictly forbids her from going above the water.  In his eyes, humans are ghastly.  That’s a problem because his daughter is enamored with handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes).  Like a sixteen-year-old who sneaks out of the house through a bedroom window, Ariel visits the nefarious and alluring sea witch, Ursula (a rapturous Pat Carroll in one of the best fantasy villain roles to ever appear in the movies).  The deal is Ursula will turn Ariel into a human for three days.  In exchange the little mermaid must surrender her gorgeous singing voice.  If Eric does not give Ariel a kiss of true love by the time the sun sets on the third day, then her soul belongs to Ursula for all eternity. Ariel gets some help from Sebastian the crab (also a sea-life orchestral conductor), innocent Flounder, and a zany seagull named Scuttle (Buddy Hackett).

The animators at Disney use everything at their disposal to burst wondrous color within the film.  There’s life brought to the sea life within the backgrounds from a blowfish who BLOWS, to the Octopus and the shrimp and swordfish.  Even the random bubbles that float around are marvelous to look at. Nothing is off limits and life under the sea seems so much more enticing compared to the ho hum activities that we humans endure each day with traffic jams and junk mail.

Other Disney productions like Alaadin and Beauty And The Beast that followed, offer some life lessons for the protagonists to consider.  The Little Mermaid doesn’t actually.  It rests upon wishes and dreams for Ariel.  I’m thankful for that.  It’s such a glorious picture that I coast through on the fantasy of it all.  Ariel takes me on adventures to explore shipwrecks and her grotto where her human collectibles are stashed.  I get to carefully approach the dark imagery of Ursula’s caverns where countless, slimy, pitiful souls suffer, while the tentacled monster delights in her vanity with Pat Carroll’s gleeful voiceover.  It’s just enough for me.  Disney doesn’t always have to preach, and I think it’s why The Little Mermaid is my favorite of all of their films. 

Every moment is beautifully drawn in shape and color.  Still for a film that came six years before the Pixar evolution, the expressions of the characters come off so naturally.  Look at Sebastian’s fear and frustration as he tries to keep up with an independent Ariel.  Pay attention to Ariel’s nervous reaction when she encounters Eric on the beach after she’s become human.  She’s animated to try and straighten her hair and grin her teeth because its as if the popular kid in school is walking across a disco lit gymnasium to ask her for a dance.  The animation is purely inspired by natural, human behavior that we are all too familiar with.  When drawn like this, we can’t help but be impressed.

The songs are the highlights though.  The compositions are so lively and easy to pick up and sing along to, like we all did in high school.  The lyrics are equally impressive like the most brilliant of dialogue.  When Ursula makes her campaign for why this trade would be advantageous for Ariel (Poor Unfortunate Souls), I can’t help but believe her.  She’ll have her looks and pretty face.  It’s only her voice!  You got a point there Ursula.  The best villains always have the most sound reasonings behind their motivations.

Sebastian (Samuel E Wright) makes a strong argument for why life Under The Sea is so much better than living on land.  His enthusiasm in song is completely convincing.  Life under the sea is nothing but a party.  Let’s go.

Jodi Benson gives a strong voiceover performance as Ariel.  I’m hearing a firm and independent young woman who stands her ground and will defy any orders to go after what she desires.  Her rendition of Part Of Your World is one of Disney’s most treasured and celebrated moments in film history when accompanied with the setting of Ariel’s towering grotto of props that we humans take for granted like fish hooks and dining utensils, especially a dinglehopper…you know…a fork!  This is what a kid dreams of becoming when alone in her room with no one there to judge her true feelings and desires.  It’s truly glorious.

The one scene that does give me pause is the dramatic discovery King Triton has of Ariel’s secret vault of collectibles.  By the end of the moment, his temper has grown so big, that he unleashes the power of his trident to destroy everything she’s treasured.  I’ve always said this looks brutally familiar to how a father might take a baseball bat to a kid and her room, teetering on domestic violence.  The scene is memorable but unnerving all the same.  Still, I have to remind myself that this is a fantasy, and this is only a movie. 

Nonetheless, The Little Mermaid is a timeless film filled with magic and whimsy and daring escapes and big laughs that are not just relegated for eight-year-olds.  As adults, we remember those butterfly feelings of our first crush and what held us back from pursuing it further.  We can relate to what the characters do for, and towards each other.  Again, everyone from the deliciously wicked villain down to the defiantly brave protagonist and her sidekicks have a point and very human understandings for why they exist and what they want out of life.  Being a mermaid or a crab or a sea monster doesn’t make any of these people any less human. 

SERPICO

By Marc S. Sanders

In the 1970’s Al Pacino had a slew of Oscar nominated roles.  One of those revered performances was as Frank Serpico, the righteous cop working with a corrupt New York City police department, in Sidney Lumet’s gritty Serpico.  The wardrobes and appearances of New York and its five boroughs seem unfamiliar nearly 50 years later, but the film can still maintain interest for a viewer because it’s astonishing how valid and true all the facts remain.  Cops were happily taking handouts, while the politicians and commissioners took no issue with looking the other way.  Whether it was disregarding a deli owner’s double-parking offenses for a free sandwich, or skimming some payouts from drug and prostitution rings, Serpico’s morals were always facing an insurmountable conflict.

Lumet’s film starts off with an interesting observation.  Word gets out that Frank has been shot and is being rushed in an ambulance, and one police officer asks the other, if a cop did it (not who did it).  If you never knew anything about this guy’s life or what he experienced, you know in just a small economy of words that Frank Serpico has become everyone’s enemy; not just to the hoods, pimps and drug pushers, but to those who are supposed to be his allies and support.

Long before Al Pacino inherited his gruff smoker’s voice that bellows like an angry lion with too much phlegm, he had the ear piercing outbursts with the same intensity to frighten his co-stars.  His character is seemingly the one true blue cop in the entire squad who doesn’t befriend the local hoods.  Serpico never accepts a bribe or hides a report.  It’s a frustrating ordeal and Pacino goes to the limits with big outbursts while pacing back and forth and showing terrible fear and panic in his eyes.  Lumet’s camera is quick enough to capture every tick that Pacino exudes.  It’s not Al Pacino performing within the frame of the camera.  It’s actually Sidney Lumet’s lens adjusting to how wild Pacino goes physically with his volume and body language.  

Frank Serpico was a lone wolf.  As the story progresses, the other cops find it hard to believe that he will not accept being part of the gang that is on the take. They grow concerned.  Can they trust Frank to keep his mouth shut and let things be?  No, they can’t count on Frank to toss a blind eye.  He is persistent on getting this story out to the proper authorities.  Naturally, it’s hard for these corrupt individuals to share a locker room or ride in the same car with him as a passenger.  Frank’s limit though is that he is reluctant to testify.  Get the investigation going and have the authorities uncover it for themselves, and then do something about it.  That’s all.  If he testifies, then his life is truly in danger as this all becomes official in a court of law.

Serpico is a good film because of Pacino and because of the concept of the story.  It’s more compelling because arguably in the United States’ most well-known city, corruption actually abounds.  Dirty cops in New York City?  Why, that’s unheard of! It was sadly all true and justice was not being executed fairly.  

However, Serpico is not Lumet’s best film, nor Pacino’s.  Often it meanders.  There’s not a lot of action.  There’s quite a number of scenes where Pacino’s screaming paranoia takes over.  It grows tired, honestly.  Moreover, it gets repetitive.  Many of Pacino’s outbursts feel like I just saw a scene like that, five minutes earlier.  

What keeps me going through the film is the fact that one authority after another refuses to take this problem head on.  The captains, the commissioner, the prosecutors and even the mayor of New York City never allow any chance of pursuing the wrongdoing that’s occurring.  After all, if you prosecute everyone involved, who is going to be left and how would that make an elected official look in the eyes of his constituents?

There are subplots focusing on the relationship between Frank and a couple of his girlfriends played by Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe.  I found these connections to exist as additional outlets for Pacino’s outbursts.  I didn’t terribly mind this material.  The acting is fine, but what did I gain from moments?  I read that the actual Frank Serpico had four relationships during his time as a New York City cop.  From a story perspective however, condensed into a film, I didn’t gain any new insight.

Serpico is worth watching.  I just wouldn’t put this on the top of my Lumet or Pacino priorities for must see viewing.  Still, it’s a true story that I’m satisfied was told.  In 1974, Hollywood was taking risks to show the ugly side behind a uniform or face of nobility.  This is where I consider film medium to be a necessary conduit of information and awareness for us.  On that level, Serpico serves as an important treatment.

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.”

PRIMAL FEAR

By Marc S. Sanders

If you explore the career of Edward Norton, you may find a common theme of duality in many of his roles.  Certainly, The Incredible Hulk (man vs literal green monster).  There’s also the heist film The Score where he is an aspiring thief with a talent to take on a mentally handicapped persona.  American History X offered a wide transition from downright evil to wholesome redemption from the worst of sin.  Even the remake of The Italian Job shows one kind of jerky guy early on, and later there’s another kind of cad on display.  Yet, Norton’s role as a church choir boy named Aaron Stampler in his first film, Primal Fear, is maybe his most apparent, and it remains an astonishing performance.

I had read William Diehl’s novel long before the movie was even made.  My impression of the film is that it is well cast.  Early on in the story, Aaron is apprehended following the grisly murder of Chicago’s Archbishop.  His clothes are covered in the priest’s blood and he’s captured on the news trying to outrun the police.  This looks like an open and shut case, which is why hot shot attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) wants to take on defending Aaron, pro bono. 

Simply the name of Gere’s role, Martin Vail, could not be more appropriate.  He thrives on vanity and pride, ensuring that when he gives an interview it is none other than a cover story.  Gere is perfectly handsome and his energy is so right for the part.  He wears his suits with natural and self-assured swagger.  When Martin attends a benefit dinner in the first few minutes of the picture, everyone in the room knows who he is, whether they only at least admire the guy, or downright despise the ego he proudly carries.  Only Martin Vail will insist that young Aaron with a boy scout, puppy dog expression could be innocent.  Everyone else has deemed his client as “The Butcher Boy.”

The accused is a simple kid who was brought in off the streets by the Archbishop.  He’s a nobody.  It’s the victim who is prominent, and one of the first strategies that Vail engages in is putting the deceased Archbishop on trial because it could lend to just what he needs for exoneration – reasonable doubt.  That could mean other prominent figures in the city will get caught in the web. 

Like many mysteries and courtroom dramas before and after Primal Fear, red herrings abound.  The side stories dealing with botched real estate investments within minority neighborhoods feel like they sprung from a completely different cloth, like an episode of L.A. Law.  What keeps them above water though are the performances of the supporting cast with John Mahoney and Stuart Bauer, respectively portraying the state district attorney and a Hispanic well-established mobster that Vail represents.  Somehow, Diehl’s murder trial story circles back to these guys and what the Archbishop had to do with them.

A twisted sex scandal within the church also comes into play.  After all, where there’s murder there is motive.  The math is not that simple though.

To lend a little more conflict to the film is the prosecuting attorney Janet Venable.  She is played by Laura Linney, maybe doing a little over acting, who once had a tryst with Martin.  Honestly, it comes off as an unnecessary subplot, perhaps only there to give quick witted resentful dialogue for Janet to serve at Martin, while Gere puts on the teasing smirk to send back over the net.  The opposing counsel try to psych one another out, but we all know that Martin is the smarter attorney of the two. 

Primal Fear hinges on Edward Norton first and Richard Gere second.  Norton’s performance is written, and thereby performed, to come in under the radar for the first half of the film.  Aaron is a quiet, frightened, uncertain kid from the backwoods of Kentucky.  Gere and the supporting cast populate much of the first half of the movie.  Later, Aaron offers up a surprise delivery that turns the film on its heel, and the story takes on a whole new trajectory. 

Gere is superb with the conceit of the character.  Director Gregory Hoblit places Martin Vail front and center during transition shots where he gives statements to the press while entering the courthouse.  It’s a subtly effective way to uphold how proud and cocky the attorney is.  When the surprise from Norton comes around though, even a hot shot, intuitive lawyer like Martin can’t immediately figure out what to do next.  The surprise works even though it comes out of nowhere.

Primal Fear offers a lot of standard stuff from other typical courtroom thrillers.  Some players are introduced that could lend to why the crime occurred.  Some are there to distract you.  Some are there to circle back around in the third act.  There’s a ping pong volley of objections and witness testimony.  There’s the blood splattered crime scene investigation.  We’ve seen it all before.  Nevertheless, I don’t hold any of that against the film.  I still get a thrill out of standard car chases and shootouts the same way I stay alert through another courtroom mystery.  It’s fast paced and until the puzzle is completely assembled, I’m engaged especially if the cast is working on all cylinders. 

The end leaves you thinking though because just when you believe all the pieces have been put back into place there’s one hanging thread that is left unraveled and you may be asking yourself how that got past me.  That’s when you know you are watching an entertaining movie.  If you have to think about it long after it is over, then the movie got one over on you.  Primal Fear accomplishes that feat.