James Bond and the Specter of SPECTRE


James Bond #24 officially hits U.S. theaters this Friday and old-school Bond fans are chomping at the bit. For starters, the end of 2012’s “Skyfall” essentially brought the old band back together. It reunited everyone’s favorite oversexed, functionally alcoholic spy/professional assassin with a new M (Ralph Fiennes, stepping into Bernard Lee and Judy Dench’s shoes), a younger Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, stepping into the very big pumps of the great Lois Maxwell), and a vastly younger Q (in reality, super-youthful 35-year-old Ben Whishaw, taking the part that once belonged to Desmond Llewelyn, who was pretty much born craggy).

All that’s missing is just the right super-nemesis, but never fear: “Spectre” will be our first chance to see the reassembled team in action against its most famous opponent, a stateless organization bent on world domination for profit and for the sheer fun of being really, really evil.

The Face of Evil

But what will today’s SPECTRE be like? The original Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion and it’s leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was alluded to in the first Bond movie, “Dr. No” (1962), and haunted the series for years afterward. Even so, at first, Blofeld was just a disembodied voice and a hand stroking an unusually compliant white cat. It wasn’t until 1967’s “You Only Live Twice” that we finally saw the face of the man behind the international organization dedicated to world domination at any cost.

That face changed considerably as he was played three times by three very different actors, beginning with the diminutive, creepy and bald Donald Pleasance as the original Dr. Evil. He would morph into the much more testosterone-driven Telly Savalas (later TV’s “Kojak”) in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and would then grow a full head of hair to be played by the imposing Charles Gray in 1971’s “Diamonds are Forever.” As much as this might be an artifact of the lack of concern with continuity that was standard before the comic book geek takeover of Hollywood, it actually lines up somewhat with the Blofeld of Ian Fleming’s original novels, who lost and gained large amounts of weight and underwent major plastic surgery to elude detection.

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Blu Tuesday: Inside Out and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Inside Out”

WHAT: When young Riley (Kaitlyn Davis) is uprooted from Minnesota and moved to San Francisco for her father’s new job, her emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) – struggle to adjust to her new life, creating havoc inside her mind where her memories and personalities are stored.

WHY: For a movie studio founded on innovation, it’s been awhile since Pixar has created something truly original, which is why it’s so great to see the animation outfit return to those roots with “Inside Out.” Featuring all the touchstones of a typical Pixar film – it’s funny, charming, clever and touching, often at the same time – “Inside Out” is one of the studio’s most unique features to date, and arguably its most mature as well. Though it borrows generously from the Woody/Buzz road-trip plot of the original “Toy Story,” the movie is incredibly sophisticated, dealing with big-picture ideas that kids may not completely understand on a conceptual level, but can still identify with thanks to the way co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have deconstructed it. Amy Poehler is also smartly cast as the voice of Joy, although surprisingly, it’s Phyllis Smith (best known for her role on “The Office”) who is the real standout as Sadness. The other voice actors aren’t given as much to do, and the film has a habit of oversimplifying its treatment of Riley’s emotions (which were clearly inspired by the work of Robert Plutchik), including some manufactured conflict that’s a bit flimsy, but it makes up for those minor blemishes with boundless levels of creativity that win out every time.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen and producer Jonas Rivera, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the movie’s evolution, featurettes on sound design, film editing and creating the emotions and the inside of Riley’s mind, as well some deleted scenes, the short film “Lava” and an all-new short titled “Riley’s First Date?”



WHAT: When Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) realizes that his family’s annual vacation is in desperate need of a little shakeup, he finds inspiration from his own childhood and plans a cross-country road trip to Walley World. But just like his vacation to America’s favorite family fun park as a kid, things don’t go exactly as planned, as the Griswolds must contend with thieving rednecks, psychotic truck drivers and their own extended family.

WHY: Though the original “Vacation” featured its share of lowbrow comedy, the 2015 sequel/reboot is so embarrassingly dumb that it makes the Harold Ramis/John Hughes classic seem decidedly highbrow by comparison. Nothing that happens in this film makes a shred of sense, while the Griswolds themselves are so naïve that it’s a miracle they’re able to function in their daily lives. In fact, they’re such miserable company that it’s hard to recall a single laugh in the movie earned by any of the family members. Fortunately, the supporting cast steps up to save the film from being a complete waste of time. Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day are both funny in their respective roles, while a scene involving a standoff between the different state police officers in charge of patrolling the Four Corners Monument is the funniest bit in the entire movie. It hardly makes up for the stupidity on display in the rest of the film, however, because “Vacation” goes for the cheap and easy joke every time, and although some work well, most of them are so lame that it’ll make you wish the franchise stayed dead after “Vegas Vacation.”

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette and interviews with the cast about honoring the legacy of the franchise, there are some deleted scenes and a gag reel.


“The Final Girls”

WHAT: On the anniversary of her mother’s death, Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends attend a special screening of “Camp Bloodbath,” the ‘80s slasher film that starred Max’s mom (Malin Akerman). But when the theater suddenly catches fire and Max cuts through the projector screen in order to escape, the group is mysteriously sucked into the cult horror classic where they must team up with the movie’s fictional characters in order to battle its machete-wielding killer.

WHY: There’s been a surge of meta horror films released over the last few years, but while Todd Strauss-Schulson’s “The Final Girls” boasts a really clever premise and a solid cast, it doesn’t succeed on the same level as other recent entries like “The Cabin in the Woods” and “You’re Next.” Though it has a lot of fun playing with slasher tropes and cinema in general (showing the way Max and her friends are affected by elements like musical cues, monochromatic flashback sequences and slow motion within the fictional movie), the film isn’t funny or scary enough, ultimately becoming a victim of its own satire due to its insistence on preserving the genre’s traditionally bad acting and writing. Additionally, the movie only follows its established rules when it’s convenient for the story, creating several plot holes in the process, while the funniest cast members are killed off too early. Diehard horror fans will still find plenty to love about “The Final Girls” in spite of these flaws, but it’s definitely not as good as it could have been.

EXTRAS: There are three different audio commentaries – one with director Todd Strauss-Schulson, another with the cast and crew, and a third with writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller – as well as featurettes on visual effects and previsualization, and some deleted scenes and alternate endings with optional director commentary.



Movie Review: “Our Brand is Crisis”

Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thorton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan
David Gordon Green

With the 2016 U.S. presidential election already garnering plenty of media attention, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for a film like “Our Brand is Crisis” to remind everyone that politics is just a big sham. Loosely based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name (which detailed the marketing tactics employed by a team of American consultants led by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election), the movie delivers a watered-down version of those events that audaciously tries to get the audience to identify with its morally corrupt protagonist. The fact that she’s portrayed by America’s sweetheart, Sandra Bullock, is a genius piece of casting, because the actress could play Hitler’s mother and still come across somewhat likable, but it doesn’t mask the film’s tonal inconsistencies and lack of direction.

Bullock stars as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a disgraced campaign strategist who’s been out of the political game for six years after a string of losses credited to her self-destructive behavior. But when Bolivian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) hires an elite American management team to run his campaign, only to find themselves 28 points behind in the polls with 90 days to go, Jane is approached in a last-ditch attempt to turn the ship around. It’s apparent to Jane within minutes of meeting Castillo that he’s a lost cause, but despite the seemingly impossible odds of closing the gap on populist candidate Victor Rivera (Louis Arcella), she agrees to take the job after discovering that the competition has hired its own American strategist, longtime rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s beaten her in every previous contest. For Jane, this is personal, and though Castillo’s Bolivian consultants strongly advise against running a negative campaign – they just don’t do that in their country – she convinces him that playing dirty is his only chance of winning.

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James Bond: The Spectre of a Boozehound


007 is many things – a near superhero, seemingly unafraid of death or anything else; a relentless womanizer, though occasionally heartbroken; and, of course, an inveterate boozer. One part connoisseur, one part super-functional alcoholic, there was a time when he appeared to never let the opportunity pass to show off his knowledge of all types of fermented beverages.

As of this writing, just a week before the worldwide release of the 24th canonical James Bond film on November 6, we don’t know for sure what JB will be imbibing in his newest adventure, although reports of an olive brine-infused dirty martini made with Belvedere Vodka have been circulating. We can tell you that, while a couple of true loves have come and gone through James Bond’s world over six decades of novels and films, his deep and intense relationship with booze is likely to remain eternal. What follows is a brief education on Mr. Bond and his deeply committed relationship with demon alcohol.

Shaken, not stirred

Ask any cocktail snob and they will tell you that, generally speaking, cocktails that do not feature fruit juices should be stirred, not shaken. Shaking is said to harm the taste of gin and “cloud” drinks  of all types with ice crystals, making them a tad less pretty. James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming – a snob of the highest order but not exactly a cocktail snob in the modern sense – simply detested stirred drinks and wanted them all shaken, all the time. So, when Bond ordered a martini, it was always shaken and never stirred. Personally, we think he’s wrong about gin martinis but right about vodka martinis.

The 21st century Bond derided the shaken/stirred controversy in the funniest line in 2006’s“Casino Royale” (“Do I look like I give a damn?” said a thoroughly stressed out 007 to a clueless barman.) He does, however, look on admiringly watching a shaken martini being made in 2012’s “Skyfall.”

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Blu Tuesday: Southpaw, Pixels and Army of Darkness

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.


WHAT: After his wife (Rachel McAdams) is tragically killed and he spirals out of control, undefeated light heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) lands himself in trouble with the boxing league, losing his house, his possessions, and most importantly, custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Desperate to keep her out of the foster care system where he spent his childhood, Billy seeks help from a gruff, veteran trainer (Forest Whitaker) to get back what he lost.

WHY: Throughout the years, boxing movies have been synonymous with tales of redemption, and Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” is no different. But for as clichéd and heavy-handed as the film can be at times, the movie avoids dragging itself too far into melodrama thanks to some excellent performances and a solid screenplay by Kurt Sutter that is as brutal and emotionally charged as you’d expect from the “Sons of Anarchy” creator. Though Sutter originally wrote the lead role for Eminem, Jake Gyllenhaal brings a physicality and intensity to the character that’s beyond the rapper’s abilities. It’s a much more complex role than it appears on the surface, and Gyllenhaal knocks it out of the park. In fact, while “Nightcrawler” features the better performance, “Southpaw” is perhaps his most impressive piece of acting to date, if only because he’s managed to take a fairly standard underdog drama and elevate it on the strength of his shoulders alone. The film isn’t on the same level as the boxing greats, but with Gyllenhaal’s knockout performance front and center, it’s a lot more enjoyable than it probably had any right to be.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, a Q&A with the cast, footage of Jake Gyllenhaal’s training regimen for the film and some deleted scenes.



WHAT: In 1982, NASA sent a time capsule into space in the hopes of contacting other life forms, but after an alien race misinterprets the message as a declaration of war, they attack Earth in the form of retro video game characters. When the military proves useless, U.S. President William Cooper (Kevin James) enlists the help of best friend Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), along with fellow video game prodigies Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), to save the planet from certain extinction.

WHY: Though it may seem like critics are being overly hard on “Pixels” simply because Adam Sandler is in the movie, it really is a bad film. The premise itself is cool, and director Chris Columbus taps into some of that potential with fun set pieces that look great and play with the mechanics of classic games like Pac-Man, Centipede and Donkey Kong, but unfortunately, the screenplay is a mess. It’s no better than the typical Sandler comedy (in fact, frequent collaborator Tim Herlihy is one of the co-writers), fueled by lazy and juvenile humor that falls flat more often than not. The casting of Kevin James as the president isn’t just ridiculous, but downright insulting, while the Q*Bert character shows that Hollywood never learned its lesson from Jar-Jar Binks. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better – Sandler does his usual man-child shtick and Josh Gad is wasted as his conspiracy theorist friend – but Peter Dinklage’s over-the-top performance as the Billy Mitchell-esque gamer is just silly enough to ensure that “Pixels” isn’t a complete disappointment. Still, an idea this good deserved something better.

EXTRAS: There are four featurettes on filming the movie’s video game-inspired set pieces, a look at Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani’s cameo and more.


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